We’ve put boots on the moon. There are plans in the works to put boots on Mars in this generation. Small spacecraft, such as Voyager 1, have traveled more than 138 AU from our planet since launching, with the goal of discovering what interstellar space may have in store. The pros and cons of space exploration let us explore the final frontier that we currently know. It allows us to see what the universe offers beyond on our planet.
Exploring space is also inherently dangerous. Not only is space a vacuum environment that does not support human life without protection, but we do not know what may be lying in wait for us out there. The conflicts we have here at home could be minuscule compared to the conflicts that may be waiting for us in the stars.
Here are some of the key points to think about when looking at this debate.
What Are the Pros of Space Exploration?
1. It provides humanity with hope for the future.
Humans are currently confined to a single planet and facilities that orbit it. Should something happen that changes the environment of the planet, it would have the potential of wiping out the entire human species. A large asteroid, the star going nova, or even a shift in the planetary climate could devastate humanity. Space exploration gives us the chance to begin colonizing other locations, giving us hope that our species can survive.
2. It increases our knowledge.
There are many secrets lying in wait to be discovered in space. Asteroids or planets may have new materials that we don’t have on Earth. We can discover more about how the universe was created and why it exists in its current state. These discoveries could then help to improve life on our own planet as we seek out others to explore.
3. It drives innovations in numerous fields.
According to the 100-Year Starship Program, the technologies that were created for and made possible because of space exploration have helped to shape, permeate, and are an integral part of who we are today. To travel the stars, we must be able to store large quantities of energy. We must develop closed-loop support systems. Advances in agriculture, computing, artificial intelligence, and manufacturing must happen as well. The framework needed to explore space improves the socioeconomic frameworks we have at home.
4. It can be something that we do at home.
According to information provided by the Goddard Space Flight Center, there are over 2,200 active satellites in orbit around Earth right now. One of those satellites is the Hubble Space Telescope. This technology has allowed us to explore our solar system from right here at home. In 2017, this telescope discovered that a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt, name 2007 OR10, has a moon that was previously unknown.
5. True space exploration requires international cooperation.
The foundation of how we explore space was created in 1966 with the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. It’s easier to call it the “Outer Space Treaty.” By 2017, there were 105 countries who had signed onto the treaty and another 24 who have signed, but not yet ratified it. This treaty forbids placing weapons of mass destruction into orbit, installing them on the moon, or any other location in space. The treaty also disallows any nation from claiming a celestial resource as a national appropriation.
6. The political structures of managing space exploration are already in place.
According to Wired, a multistate body that is supported by 193 nations approves the orbits of items that are currently in space. It is called the International Telecommunication Union and it has been in place since the 1960s. With their protocols helping to create a push deeper into space, exploration could become a future way of life.
What Are the Cons of Space Exploration?
1. It could allow other civilizations to know about our own.
The idea of finding alien life has been a concept explored in the medium of fiction for more than a century. There is something comforting about the idea that humans are not alone in the universe as a species. That knowledge could come with a price. If an advanced civilization encountered one of the gold-plated records on the Voyager crafts and decided they wanted our planetary resources, we might be unable to stop them. There is sometimes more danger in being part of a community than living by yourself without any neighbors.
2. Exploring space is a costly venture.
In 1973, the total cost of the Apollo program was reported to the US Congress as being $25.4 billion. The total cost of the space shuttle program, when adjusted for inflation, was $196 billion. Each mission that was flown came at a cost of $450 million. The Mars One mission budget to bring just 4 people to Mars is over $6 billion. Even as technologies advance, the costs of exploring space are far from cheap.
3. We must consume resources to get people or equipment into space.
There are high fuel costs required to launch anything into orbit. Using the US Space Shuttle program as an example, the total mass of all propellants was over 3.8 million pounds. Fossil fuels are refined to create these fuels, used in the manufacturing processes to create the equipment or vehicles, and this creates an environmental cost which must be paid at some point.
4. Exploring space means we’re leaving a lot of litter behind.
According to information provided by NASA, there are more than 500,000 items of debris that are currently being tracked as they orbit our planet. This space junk is litter that is flying at a speed of over 17,500 miles per hour, which means an impact could do great damage. Now expand the amount of space junk that exists to other planets or solar systems and the amount of litter we would leave behind is quite enormous.
5. No agreements are in place for rich resources that may exist in space.
The current treaties which govern space exploration forbid governments from appropriating territories in space. The amount of materials in a single asteroid could be more than $100 billion. Planetary Resources has evaluated an asteroid called “Davida” to be worth $100 trillion or more. Although the US has brought back hundreds of pounds of rocks from the moon without litigation, there would be a greater fight in grabbing resources that are in the hundreds of trillions of dollars.
The pros and cons of space exploration highlight the current rifts we have in society. Governments are restricted and private organizations with the most resources have the chance to make huge profits. If those profits can be funneled toward a mutual good, then humanity can do more than just survive. It could thrive.