What value space exploration?

By Phil Plait | April 14, 2008 8:00 am

Fraser at Universe Today had a good thought — he (like any space enthusiast) gets asked about the value of space exploration all the time. So why not post an answer, and ask others to send in answers as well?

So he sent an email to a few folks asking them to answer this question: "Why should we be spending money exploring space when there are so many problems here on Earth that we need to solve first?"

He’s been posting the responses, and they’ve been really good. Here’s mine… but you should go over to UT and check out what the others have said. Lots of ammo there for the next time a luddite wants to cut NASA’s budget!

First, the question of why spend money there when we have problems here is a false dichotomy. We have enough money to work on problems here and in space! We just don’t seem to choose to, which is maddening. $12 million an hour is spent in Iraq; the US government chose to do that instead of fix many problems that could have been solved with that money. NASA is less than 1% of the US budget, so it’s best to pick your fights wisely here.

Second, space exploration is necessary. We learn so much from it! Early attempts discovered the van Allen radiation belts (with America’s first satellite!). Later satellites found the ozone hole, letting us know we were damaging our ecosystem. Weather prediction via satellites is another obvious example, as well as global communication, TV, GPS, and much more.

If you want to narrow it down to exploring other planets and the Universe around us, again we can give the practical answer that the more we learn about our space environment, the more we learn about the Earth itself. Examining the Sun led us to understand that its magnetic field connects with ours, sometimes with disastrous results… yet we can fortify ourselves against the danger, should we so choose. Space exploration may yet save us from an asteroid impact, too. Spreading our seed to other worlds may eventually save the human race.

But I’m with Fraser. These are all good reasons, and there are many, many more. But it is the very nature of humans to explore! We could do nothing in our daily lives but look no farther than the ends of our noses. We could labor away in a gray, listless, dull world.

Or we can look up, look out to the skies, see what wonders are there, marvel at exploding stars, majestic galaxies, ringed worlds, and perhaps planets like our own. That gives us beauty and joy in our world, and adds a depth and dimension that we might otherwise miss.

Space exploration is cheap. Not exploring is always very, very expensive.

Comments (83)

  1. Mus

    Because, contrary to what many religious fundies think, there is no such thing as too much knowledge.

  2. john

    The more poignant question might have been “what value *manned* space exploration” since that is the big budget sink……

  3. J Jones

    I’m sorry “Mus”, but what does this post have to do with religion? Can we have a scientific discussion without posting stereotypical statements about a group of people?

  4. One very important thing to note about space exploration, the money spent is not actually shot into space…

    Any money spent actually actually remains here on Earth and almost all of it goes back into the US economy in all 50 states. It provides incentive for men and women to become scientists which enriches our education system, our technological prowess, and our hopes and dreams for the future.

    Eric A

  5. allkom

    You may call me a visionary . I have children, hopefully they’ll have them too and so on . Simple math will show that in a few centuries there will be no room nor resources on Earth to accommodate human race . Alternatives are : self-extinction , unstable balance or out-migration . I would chose the later , as our ancestors did . Besides , it´s so more exciting!

  6. blair

    The arguement in the first paragraph is a mess.

    It starts out with the claim that the either/or construct of the question is flawed, and then uses the Iraq war as the first part of another either/or construct. You can’t have it both ways.

  7. Mark Martin

    Obviously no money was spent on [in situ] space exploration prior to about 50 years ago. Was all that money being used to [successfully] eradicate social problems before the Space Age? Or was civilization just as much a dynamic patchwork of success & failure then as now? History bears witness to the fact that space exploration hasn’t stolen any food from any mouths. Those mouths were never being fed to begin with. We could halt all exploration, and the mouths would remain unfed.

  8. Christian X Burnham

    Not exploration per-se, but we do need to start putting solar panels on the Moon.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/04/020416073334.htm

    It would solve all our energy problems.

  9. Mark Martin

    Photovoltaics on the Moon would only solve our energy needs if the cells can be manufactured & deployed for less energy (a lot less) than they’ll deliver in their useful lifetimes. That state of the art hasn’t been reached yet.

  10. blair, you misunderstood my point. It is a false dichotomy; we don’t have to choose between spending money on space exploration and fixing problems here on Earth. There’s enough for both. If we can find the money to waste on Iraq, then we can find the money to fund what we need to do elsewhere.

    The Iraq funding was not an either/or proposition. It was to show that money can be found… though I would say that money is being leveraged against our children’s debt. Still, it shows that the first statement is correct. The paragraph is neither a mess nor is it trying to have it both ways.

  11. wisnij

    @john – Manned missions are necessary too. The logical next step to exploration is colonization, and to do that we need to understand how to live and work in space.

  12. Rowsdower

    Excellent, as usual, Phil. But I’d add one more thing to your list: technology developed specifically for space missions gets applied to all kinds of technology down here on Earth, stuff that never goes out into space.

  13. Chapio

    If I was President of the United States of America…I would increase the NASA budget to 20%! Also, one of the new space shuttles would be called of course, ENTERPRISE!

    VOTE FOR ME!

  14. flynjack

    The biologist in me will come out here. The reason we should explore space is survival. The fact of the matter is that our ultimate survival as a species depends on our ability to continue to grow and spread. Stasis is not an option. This is the long term answer. One could write an entire book on this topic alone, but the dangers to mans survival on earth are well documented. Migration is an imperitive. Even if we manage not to kill ourselves with stupidity, the universe is a dangerous place…GRB’s, asteroids/comets, super volcanoes etc…

  15. I’m somewhat leery of those ‘it’s our very nature to explore’ arguments. I think they just restate in slightly mystical fashion the fact that we do explore. This implies that, historically, or in longer evolutionary timescales, exploration had good results, since we are still here, but it gives no insight as to whether exploration is still a good thing today.

  16. SF Reader

    My favorite basic reason is that the dinosaurs are gone because they didn’t have a space program, various SF stories to the contrary…

  17. Now while I agree with pretty much all you said, I also feel that only the second paragraph (and some of the third) will carry any weight to people who need to be convinced. Here you point out the immediate benefits that may not have been had without space exploration (asteroid detection, solar weather).

    In the first para you refer to the Iraq war, which is a weakness: It sets you up as having a political agenda, quite possibly contrary to the politics of those you want to convince.

    Towards the end you wax lyrically about enlarging our understanding of the universe. Again many people, especially the ones who question space exploration, do not care about this very much. Gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not going to convince people who do not value knowledge very highly to begin with.

    As for the colonization argument flagged up by others: This may convince dreamers/visionaries, but I suspect they were already on board to begin with.

  18. SkepticTim

    Phil, I agree with most of what you said but I object to your characterization “…We could labor away in a gray, listless, dull world…”
    To list just a few of the many vast unexplored parts of the little world: We know very little about the interior of the earth, even something a simple as the mechanism that generates and maintains the geomagnetic field is still pretty much just a speculation!We still have a long, long way to go before we understand earth’s climate or its oceans. The majority of the biosphere is largely unexplored territory. This is hardly a “gray, listless, dull world”!

  19. john

    @wisni
    I totally agree….which is why we are failing miserably at it. The space station was funded neither for science nor furthering human spaceflight. It was given the nod by Congress after some arm twisting by the Executive branch, who wanted to keep Russian rocket scientists working on rockets as opposed to more nasty things in other countries. While this is also a good thing, it is destroying both human spaceflight and science at NASA. If you include the Shuttle program, whose stated purpose aside from Hubble SM4 is to build the space station, well over half of NASA’s full budget is being spent on the space station….which will be fully complete and manned for a shorter period of time than it took to build.

    Let’s de-orbit the station and focus on real long term manned spaceflight (the President’s vision for manned spaceflight isn’t it) and get some more science funding while we’re at it.

  20. Celtic_Evolution

    SkepticTim –

    I took Phil’s charecterization of a “gray, listless, dull world” to be not a literal description of the world, but the world as seen through the eyes of one who does not understand the importance of exploration and expansion of knowledge. To that PERSON, the world is a gray, listless dull world, and for them, that is just fine… but it deprives them of the wonder that such exploration offers, and that’s never been the driving spirit of the human race.

    But that’s just how I took it… maybe I’m wrong… :)

  21. Celtic_Evolution

    expanding on john’s post a bit…

    I think it should be reasonably feasible to take the technology and lessons learned in building the space station and manning astronauts there for extended periods to actually creating something of real USE… like a lunar base. Such a base could be used for scientific AND political purposes. It could be powered completely using Solar Panels as mentioned in Christian’s post (although impact objects would have to be overcome… say with scattered solar farms for reducndancy)… it could be used to not only launch future missions, but actually construct and manufacture space flight vehicles… and use it as a staging point for any such “escape from global disaster” flights, as has been discussed earlier.

    Of course there are difficulties there, such as availability of water and other vital resources… but I say there’s no reason it can’t be done and the possibilities, once such a base is established, are endless! THIS is where I think we should really be focusing our efforts, where I think you get the most bang for the buck over the long term, IMHO.

  22. nancy

    Arthur C. Clarke answered this very question about 40 years ago, and basically said that if Man ever stopped exploring, learning, and questioning, we would be doomed as a race. We would stagnate and cease to exist.

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The fact of the matter is that our ultimate survival as a species depends on our ability to continue to grow and spread.

    Except that evolution neither will preserve us as a static species nor will it under widespread colonization preserve us as a species.

    But it’s true that environmental stasis is not an option, and even mean term applicable on a cultural basis. To appropriate an old joke:

    – What do you call a culture that practice early withdrawal?
    – ???
    – Moribund.

    As for the impactor risk, we have long been living in the latest mass extinction event of our own doing and no amount of environmental support will stop that anytime soon. IIRC it is predicted that at this rate roughly 10 – 50 % of larger species will disappear before population and global warming peaks which will probably contribute most to ecological destruction. The comfort is that so far it seems opportunists like rats, cockroaches and men will do fine.

    Sure, fragile ecologies makes the damage from a large impactor that much larger, but it will be a mess anyway.

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Oops, sorry about the unclosed tag: a species.

  25. KC

    BA:

    You may not have meant this is a case of either/or, but many do – and have for a long time. Consider it an offshoot of the old guns or butter rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s.

    I haven’t gone over to read the other pro-space exploration posts yet, but I will point out that the need to explore, while true, falls on deaf ears. Our arguments need to be more prosaic and blunt.

    Here’s one: We need to explore space because if we don’t the Chinese will – and he who holds the high ground wins the battles. Here’s another: We need to explore space because if we don’t do so now, we’ll never be able to exploit the resources out there when our own run short. And a third: We need to explore space to see what – if anything – is heading toward us.

    Once we’re out there, research is a simple matter. Until then, research for it’s own sake will be hard to justify to a great many people.

  26. On manned space exploration: unless one can give compelling arguments of public benefit that do not rely on colonization, I think this is something best left to the private sector.

  27. Robert

    I always like to turn this question the other way. Imagine if we stopped funding all space research and exploration. Hundreds of thousands of people would be put out of work, many of them without skills to do “meaningful” work to “solve” local problems. So instead of working jobs with good salaries and paying taxes to help out with welfare, they would be on welfare, and taxes would have to be raised on everyone else to help cover their share. One of the direct economic benefits of the space program is good jobs in many parts of the country that then add meaningfully to the local economies. Money spent on space is not packed into the rocket and blasted off, it stays here and circulates in the economy, providing hundreds of thousands of good paying jobs.

  28. wisnij

    @john – I agree that the current implementation of the manned space program leaves a lot to be desired.

    @KC – there’s a good bit from the end of one of Larry Niven’s short stories:

    “Luke, why do you want to go down there? What could you possibly want from Mars? Revenge? A million tons of dust?”

    “Abstract knowledge.”

    “For what?”

    “Lit, you amaze me. Why did Earth go to space in the first place, if not for abstract knowledge?”

    Words crowded over each other to reach Lit’s mouth. They jammed in his throat, and he was speechless. He spread his hands, made frantic gestures, gulped twice, and said, “It’s obvious!”

    “Tell me slow. I’m a little dense.”

    “There’s everything in space. Monopoles. Metal. Vacuum for the vacuum industries. A place to build cheap without all kinds of bracing girders. Free fall for people with weak hearts. Room to test things that might blow up. A place to learn physics where you can watch it happen. Controlled environments—”

    “Was it all that obvious before we got here?”

    “Of course it was!” Lit glared at his visitor. The glare took in Garner’s withered legs, his drooping, mottled, hairless skin, the decades that showed in his eyes—and Lit remembered his visitor’s age.

    “…Wasn’t it?”

  29. JC

    Chapio,

    Enterprise was the name of the first shuttle made for NASA
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Enterprise

  30. Quiet_Desperation

    I’ll say up front I wholly support space exploration.

    BA: Later satellites found the ozone hole, letting us know we were damaging our ecosystem. Weather prediction via satellites is another obvious example, as well as global communication, TV, GPS, and much more. If you want to narrow it down to exploring other planets and the Universe around us…

    Exactly. Generally, when people argue against “space exploration”, I don’t think they include the local stuff like you listed there. Also, much of the global comm and satellite TV are commercial, profitable endeavors.

    BA:We could do nothing in our daily lives but look no farther than the ends of our noses. We could labor away in a gray, listless, dull world.

    Your personal world is what you make of it. This seems a false dichotomy to me. The world was not dull and gray and listless before the Space Age. Just ask Da Vinci, Mozart and Shakespeare.

    BA:Space exploration is cheap.

    Well, *relatively* cheap. :-) But that’s probably the best argument right there.

    allkom: Simple math will show that in a few centuries there will be no room nor resources on Earth to accommodate human race .

    Which is why one does not use simple math for such things.

    Current estimates and models indicate the global population will peak at around 9 billion in or about the year 2070, and then probably decline for a period. If I can dig up a cite, I’ll post it.

    Christian X Burnham: Not exploration per-se, but we do need to start putting solar panels on the Moon.

    I still need to be convinced why the lunar option is better than near-Earth orbital solar farms.

    Robert: I always like to turn this question the other way. Imagine if we stopped funding all space research and exploration. Hundreds of thousands of people would be put out of work, many of them without skills to do “meaningful” work to “solve” local problems. So instead of working jobs with good salaries and paying taxes to help out with welfare, they would be on welfare, and taxes would have to be raised on everyone else to help cover their share.

    As someone who works in aerospace, I think I’m insulted. Why are you assuming people in aerospace are so incompetent outside aerospace they would be on welfare? Our problem solving skills are not limited to orbital insertion or error free comm links.

    People leave aerospace for other fields all the time. I know many who went into the commercial tech sector, real estate, finance and even a couple that opened a restaurant. Many people are managers and can apply their skills just about anyplace. We’re a pretty smart bunch. We’ll survive.

  31. Irishman

    john said:
    > The space station was funded neither for science nor furthering human spaceflight. It was given the nod by Congress after some arm twisting by the Executive branch, who wanted to keep Russian rocket scientists working on rockets as opposed to more nasty things in other countries.

    Your history is a little off. It is true that the current incarnation of ISS was partially a political push by Clinton to employ Russian scientists and engineers on peaceful projects rather than weapons. However, ISS existed as a program before that redesign. It’s previous incarnation was named Freedom by Ronald Reagan. Clinton’s effort was to get the design changed to include the Russians as a major international partner.

  32. john

    @Irishman
    Agreed. And Regan’s vision for the station was also decidedly neither for science nor for human spaceflight, but for equal parts cold war posturing and SDI. Nevertheless, Congress balked at that version, and would have killed the ISS without the Russian hook.

  33. Mus

    @ J Jones: This isn’t a scientific discussion, it’s a political one involving science. As such, I think it is appropriate to bring in the factors which are influencing the issue. Not that my comment was meant to be taken that seriously, but since you did…

  34. Spiv

    Been stated before, but the NASA budget is minuscule. Somewhere between 0.2 and 0.5% of the budget depending on where you look.

    http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm

    You’re really talking about close to 100x the budget of NASA being flushed down the “defense” tubes overseas. I agree we can justify plenty of money going into defense, but I think we could shave off a few bucks here and there and be reasonable. I sure as heck couldn’t justify NASA having a fleet of 400 shuttles, with 600 launches a year, expanding our research and dev arsenal in the same proportion. Then again, could you imagine where the space program would be if that were the case? Never mind a handful of elites in space, that’s several hundred scientists in space at any given time on various stations. That’s assuming there would be nothing saved for building in bulk like that.

    Additionally, NASA is a research program. Exploration was secondary, simply because that’s how the budget is laid out. Unfortunately in recent years there’s been a “vision for exploration” handed down from the president, who didn’t much feel like funding said vision. Doesn’t matter, they command and we must follow, money or no money.

    So now money is being taken from all other programs to fund the vision, and said vision is being stretched out over such a long time so that the money can slowly roll in to fund it.

    I wish I could believe that people understood this, but it turns out that the American population thinks some 25% of the national budget goes into space exploration, and that we haven’t produced anything since Velcro and a moon landing.

    -some guy who works here. BTW, just watched an atlas go up a few minutes ago.

  35. Peter

    As much as I love space exploration, all of the above and the linked responses are just preaching to the choir, or, to continue the metaphor, like asking devout churchgoers if prayer is important and then posting the responses from that segment of society.

    The sad truth is that the concept of manned space exploration is already looking to become a 20th Century anachronism that fewer and fewer people in the society at large are finding these arguments compelling or even credible.

  36. Edward

    I would love to go into space, even at my age of 77+ years.
    There must be something for someone like me to do.

    Space is too important not to be explored. Who knows what will
    be found.

  37. If I was President of the United States of America…I would increase the NASA budget to 20%! Also, one of the new space shuttles would be called of course, ENTERPRISE!

    You could be joking, but the geek in me is screaming.

    Too late. :D

  38. Celtic_Evolution

    Well, Peter, I think the value in the discussion in a forum such as this, even if you believe it is just “preaching to the choir”, is the sharing of ideas.

    See, what happens here is that this discussion takes place, ideas are shared, solutions and proposals are discussed… and then my hope, and I believe that of the BA, is that we don’t just take the discussion and drop it at the end of this thread. The goal is to spread the discussion and the ideas and thoughts generated within it to other sites, both science and non-science based. You share the knowledge you gain from the discussion in conversation with friends and acquaintences both in and out of the science field. You get other people thinking and talking about the same things. And they’ll tell two people… and they’ll tell two people… you’ve seen the commercial.

    So even if you believe we’re just preaching to the choir and only people who “are already onboard” with this thought process are even listening… you know what happens if we don’t bother to have the discussion?

    Nothing.

  39. Kol

    Let’s be honest with ourselves.

    We’ve been hanging around in Mom’s gravitational basement, scarfing down her groceries, looking around outside a little bit but always going back home.

    Mom doesn’t mean to give us the wrong impression when she says, “I think it’s time for you to find a place of your own”.

    We’ve made it across the street and back. That’s a good thing but still… kinda lame given the neighborhood.

    We’re gonna have to get off our butts, work up enough cash to set up a place in a different gravity well and support ourselves.

    Look. We’ve been sponging off Mom long enough. Dad’s been blazing around going, “Look at me! I’m the center of the Solar System”, and stuff while we try to take care of each other in this one freakin hole.

    It’s not like Mom doesn’t want us around. Hell, I’m sure she’ll get worried about us if we don’t call on weekends. Thing is, once we get our own place, she needs to understand that we can cross the flippin asteroid belt on our own. Yes! We know to look all three ways, already!

    I’ve heard that there are several moons around Jupiter and Saturn that may already be occupied. I’d rather not move in there just yet. We may squish someone accidentally. Mom would really be pissed if we got eaten instead.

    So, yeah. Here we are planning our own place. Mom will cry once we leave. She’ll also be proud of us. I’m pretty sure Dad will help out since he’s, what, 4.3? He’s been really good with the child support stuff so I’ll bet he’ll be there for us until he hits his 8.0’s.

    So, let’s do this thing. We’re big enough now and we’ve learned how to swim. We’ve graduated all of our classes, we have the money (if Mom doesn’t blow it all on war drugs) and I have “faith” in us.

    Write back as time permits. I’m ready.

    I hope you are, too.

  40. allkom

    “Quiet_Desperation”

    “Which is why one does not use simple math for such things.

    Current estimates and models indicate the global population will peak at around 9 billion in or about the year 2070, and then probably decline for a period. If I can dig up a cite, I’ll post it.”

    Please do , if you have better statistics . I’ve got mine from Hawkings’s projection in “Universe in a Nutshell” . I suppose he knew what he was talking about . I’m by no ways a specialists in this subject and was merely stating my opinion .

  41. Quiet Desperation

    Please do , if you have better statistics .

    Try this one.

    http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf

    It’s different than the one I saw, but they also project about 9 billion in the 2070s. A number of different models predict a decline after that point.

    They even take a shot at projecting out to 2300 AD. Personally, I think anything beyond the end of the 21st century is in Speculation Land.

    I’ve got mine from Hawkings’s projection in “Universe in a Nutshell” . I suppose he knew what he was talking about .

    The man is a great physicist, but he wouldn’t be my go to guy on global population trends.

  42. Quiet Desperation

    Can someone fix the “regex” errors, s’il vous (Phil) plait?

  43. Pop

    I not trying to bring religion into this, but think about this. “The meek shall inherit the earth.” We’ve all heard or read this. Just what does it mean? IMHO it means the adventure seekers, the brave, the self-starters, the explorers and those who seek new challenges will leave this old earth some day. Those left behind will truely and surely be the meek, timid, scared, weak of sprit, and lacking the essence that made humankind always strive for bigger and better. It will be a blessing for… (pick your group based on your belief). We must explore and that means going beyond the confines of this world.

  44. Quiet Desperation

    IMHO it means the adventure seekers, the brave, the self-starters, the explorers and those who seek new challenges will leave this old earth some day.

    I’m sure space travel is *exactly* what Jesus had in mind.

  45. Grand Lunar

    Outstanding, as always, Phil.

    I hope that there’s a descent number of those that call for support of space exploration that are US voters.
    That way, we can make our voice heard (not John Hurd, Joel Robinson ;D).

    Stop me if I’m wrong here.
    I recall that Obama planned on using some funds from the Constellation project for education funds.
    Someone ought to point out that he can get far more funds by ending the campaign in Iraq.

    It would be a shame, as well as a failure of ourselves as a species, to just give up on space exploration. There is so much to gain.

  46. MattFunke

    Vagueofgodalming: I’m somewhat leery of those ‘it’s our very nature to explore’ arguments.

    In addition to the objections you cite, I would argue that the frequency with which objections arise to those who actually do explore, and the way in which past explorers are derided even by those who reap their benefits, seem to indicate that exploration is not in our natures in any way that Joe Sixpack or Suzy Bluehair is going to recognize when you mention it.

    (That’s not to say that past explorers did not have glaring faults. Of course they did. They were human. But that’s part of the point. If we’re smart, we can learn from their mistakes; nevertheless, I guarantee we’ll make new ones.)

  47. allkom

    “Quiet Desperation”
    Thanks , great link. Very comprehensive study .

  48. Simply said, what is ultimately at stake is the continued existance of the human race.

  49. Don, extreme OTT statements like that do nothing for the cause of space exploration. People tend to remember such statements, along with the accompanying “ping” of their BS detector. When the subject of space exploration comes up again, they remember that `the arguments’ for it are bollocks and they vote against it.

  50. allkom writes:

    You may call me a visionary . I have children, hopefully they’ll have them too and so on . Simple math will show that in a few centuries there will be no room nor resources on Earth to accommodate human race . Alternatives are : self-extinction , unstable balance or out-migration . I would chose the later , as our ancestors did . Besides , it´s so more exciting!

    allkom, I’m even more of visionary. I believe that some day people in general will be able to handle algebra.

    Outmigration can’t solve the problem of overpopulation, or depletion of resources, in the long run. Population and economic growth are examples of a compound-interest expansion.

    If you expand the human population at 2% a year, filling up habitable planets as you go, your frontier passes the speed of light in a few centuries. If you develop FTL drives and can convert mass of any kind into food, the human race still runs completely out of universe in a few thousand years.

    It makes more sense to seek a sustainable future.

    I’m all for exploring space. I’m for permanent settlements in space if they have some good reason for being there, which could be anything from supporting scientists to fleeing political repression. But colonizing space to solve overpopulation is stupid. Period.

  51. flynjack writes:

    The biologist in me will come out here. The reason we should explore space is survival. The fact of the matter is that our ultimate survival as a species depends on our ability to continue to grow and spread.

    It’s a shame the mathematician in you didn’t come out here. See my response to allkom above.

    If we spread with infinite ease we still starve to death about 7000 or 8000 AD. Anyone who says “screw the future, I’ll do what I want now” can’t claim to be furthering the good of the species.

    I’d also like to note that the space we want to expand into may not be ours to take. It’s entirely possible that extraterrestrial intelligent life exists, and they may not feel like moving over for us. In a galaxy 11 billion years old, with habitable planets possible after (say) 4 billion years, the average age of the ETI civilization out there may be as high as 3.5 billion years. Think we can fight ‘em, a la Independence Day? I don’t.

    Folks like J.B.S. Haldane and Olaf Stapledon proposed one way of dealing with ETI in the way of human survival — exterminate them. I have moral qualms about that.

  52. nancy writes:

    Arthur C. Clarke answered this very question about 40 years ago, and basically said that if Man ever stopped exploring, learning, and questioning, we would be doomed as a race. We would stagnate and cease to exist.

    That must be why cockroaches, horseshoe crabs, coelocanth fish, and gingko trees have ceased to exist.

    Oh, wait a minute…

  53. Edward writes:

    I would love to go into space, even at my age of 77+ years.
    There must be something for someone like me to do.

    Space is too important not to be explored. Who knows what will
    be found.

    And for once, all I can say is… amen!

  54. Pop writes:

    I not trying to bring religion into this, but think about this. “The meek shall inherit the earth.” We’ve all heard or read this. Just what does it mean? IMHO it means the adventure seekers, the brave, the self-starters, the explorers and those who seek new challenges will leave this old earth some day. Those left behind will truely and surely be the meek, timid, scared, weak of sprit, and lacking the essence that made humankind always strive for bigger and better. It will be a blessing for… (pick your group based on your belief). We must explore and that means going beyond the confines of this world.

    Yeah, yeah, the space explorers will be an elite, a kind of superman, superior to the poor dumb jerks on Earth. A master race, you might say.

  55. allkom

    “Barton Paul Levenson wrote :colonizing space to solve overpopulation is stupid. Period.”

    Sorry if I expressed myself poorly . “Quiet Desperation” already corrected my math shortcomings . My point was more as to the survival as mankind as a species after Earth eventually becomes near uninhabitable , rather than survival of individuals to solve overpopulation . Furthermore, maybe millennia instead of centuries would be more adequate .

  56. SkepticTim

    Barton Paul Levenson writes:

    “I’m all for exploring space. I’m for permanent settlements in space if they have some good reason for being there, which could be anything from supporting scientists to fleeing political repression. But colonizing space to solve overpopulation is stupid. Period.”

    Bravo! We need only examine the historical evidence: Did out migration from Europe to the Americas solve Europe’s problems? Of course not! Neither could out migration from Earth solve Earth’s problems.

  57. wisnij

    Unchecked exponential growth will outstrip any finite resource, it’s true. But there is another reason for settling space: redundancy. If some catastrophe (whether of our own making or not) were to render Earth uninhabitable, humanity et al. would not be wiped out. If we settle beyond the solar system, we are saved from catastrophes involving Sol. And so forth. If earthlife is spread throughout the galaxy, there would be very few events capable of destroying it all.

  58. Kol

    Some of you guys literally sound like 20-something kids trying to justify living with your parents.

    It’s not a matter of you fixing the relationship at home. It’s all about us getting off your lazy butts and making a living for ourselves.

    SkeptikTim makes a very good point. Unfortunately, it seems as though higher brain functions are needed to interpret sarcasm. (Oh please, let that be sarcasm. Amen.)

    Human spaceflight it not just about first-hand experience in the cosmological wonders of the universe. Neither is it a matter of economic posturing for the benefit of the people of Earth.

    The first colony will, like a college kid, call home and ask for money/food/laundering/advice. Our goal, as parents of this new civilization, should be to do what we can for our progeny and allow them to progress on their own while we continue our domestic battles. The eyes and minds of the future none of us will experience will have their own, new, set of problems with which they will contend.

    Holding our children back from experiencing the knowledge we have gained over the course or millions of years would certainly be a crime against Humanity in the most literal sense. Hoping that society on Earth will solve all of its ills before our children migrate outward…

    The kids will be ok.

  59. sheebs

    space exploration is verrrrrrrrryyyyyyyy important
    cos youl nevr no wat youl find

  60. Bob Perry

    In the foreseeable future the human race will use the resources “out there” for production and activities yet to be determined

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Situ_Resource_Utilization

    http://www.nss.org/settlement/mars/zubrin-frontier.html

    or we will stagnate and die.

  61. TJ

    “we’ll never be able to exploit the resources out there when our own run short”

    Apart from the resources that we’ve put into orbit (what goes up …) and a few pieces of scrap metal scattered about like child’s toys, all the resources are still here on Earth. We may have to dig up garbage dumps to get at them, but …

    Apart from matter, we’re not running short of energy (’til the Sun craps out anyway). We won’t be able to pig out thoughtlessly any more, but hey – there’s some ‘exploration’ for ya.

    Apart from mining, though, it’s clear there’s *no place worth going* in the solar system – and little hope of getting beyond it in the foreseeable future. So just where are we going to explore or escape-to? No-atmosphere Mars? Near-absolute-zero moons of gaseous giants? Please. Sheer pulp fantasies. The ‘desolate’ moon? For what … to ‘survive’? For sure insanity would survive.

    If we’re going to build arks (or whatever Gerard called them) then yeah, we’ll need resources – but nobody’s given that serious thought. Deorbit the space station we spent $100 billion on? Why not park it in a higher orbit and save it – in case we think of a use for it? What about all the precious bodily resources we used to push it up there!

    This conversation is a cacophony. Because there’s no accord whatever on the direction to take. Because the options are few and tendentious. Because our technology is too limited. Because we’re burning through options to support any number of pulp fantasies that will never be realized.

    We’re essentially stuck here, we’re not going anywhere, we’ve proven that we don’t even know how to get along and live in an *cushy* environment and yet we want a *bigger* challenge?

    Phil, you’re on the wrong crusade.

  62. Lanzendorfer

    @Chapio:

    We already had a space shuttle called Enterprise. It was the first one.

  63. GW Crawford

    We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars
    ~O. Wilde

    Well, if the government used all the money from the space program and put it toalleviating poverty, we would blah, blah, blah

    The Government declared War on Poverty in the 1960s. The number of people on permanent benefits (i.e. welfare) has increased
    The Government declared a War on Drugs in the 80s. The drugs are now more plentiful, cheaper and better quality.

    Please, please save us from another Government program! NASA included.

    They were the ones who got obsessed with the shuttle at the expense of ANY alternative. And when the shuttle is retired it will be years before the space program can get something up and running (especially with King Welfare in the Oval Office)

    China will own the high ground

    Yay….

  64. Robert

    I’ve heard that it was Faraday who was once asked, “Of what use is this magnetism?” His response was the return question: “Of what use is an infant?”

    Space exploration is an easy target. It’s high profile and when something fails, it’s usually pretty spectacular in its failure. This fuels people’s perception that it’s a waste of time, effort, and money.

  65. Andy

    Here’s one more possible way to answer the question, this time with an analogy:

    Imagine a group of frogs living at the bottom of a water well and one of them being very interested in trying to reach the top of the hole while the rest of the frogs ask “but why bother?”.

    How much better our world would be if people valued and pursued knowledge and understanding of reality!

    Thank you very much Dr. Plait. I hope someday I can shake your hand.
    Cheers!

  66. Guy

    I was recently listening to a podcast where Prof Brian Cox was being interviewed, and he commented on the work done by Chase Econimics back in the 70’s, looking at the returns to the States on the Apollo programme. For every US$1 spend on the Apollo programme there was a return of US$14!!!

    We need to invest MORE in not just space exploration but science in general. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we have to be able to understand the science, and technology in our world, if we are going to be able to make sensible judgements on it. There are huge dangers of having a scientifically illiterate society. Space Exploration, possibly more than any other branch of science, has the ability to inspire the next generations into learning about, and having careers in science…

  67. earth2allie

    When I argue with folks who are against space exploration (and even astronomy in general) I usually lay out all the practical reasons first (radiation, impacts, technological gains, etc). Then I’ll slap them with the strong version of the Anthropic Principle, which says basically that the conditions that brought the Universe to its current state of being are necessarily the same as the conditions that brought observers (Us) to our current state of being (since both we and the Universe are here in our current states). Makes sense right? If a linked existence with the Universe doesn’t make studying it worthwhile, I usually just throw my hands up and hope the person I’m arguing with is never involved in Congress. If you wax philosophical with people on this issue they often walk away scratching their head and end up more willing to reconsider their point of view.

    Keep looking up, folks!

  68. Matthew Ota

    You can argue about manned vs unmanned spaceflight ad nauseum, but the plan truth is that without manned spaceflight, unmanned spaceflight would be even more underfunded.

  69. DTSLW

    Why Explore Space? I can give you endless reasons.

    I’m yet to see one Anti-Spacer answer my question convincingly.

    “Why Not Explore Space?”

  70. What is it we learn by looking for planets around distant stars besides the knowledge that there exist planets around distant stars?

  71. Claire J

    I can tell you’ve done your research, but I do have to say my part. I am against the space exploration because if the missions to mars keep failing, the money will pile up. It’s no good way to keep our debt going. You’re very right in the money situation but, what f it keeps piling up? There will be no way to stop it. What about the people that die? When will there be arguments about that? That’s what more concerns me.

  72. HH

    We can learn so many things from space. I say………………………. LETS EXPLORE!

  73. Angel

    Space exploration is no good to us!! What good will it do us if we found out that 1 million years ago there was water on Mars. We have to many issues on Earth as is. Leave things that are out of our control alone!!!!!!!!

  74. George

    @Angel
    Did you read the article at all? or did you just come here to sprout bullcrap? If you don’t know what you’re talking about don’t say anything.

  75. kevin

    @Angel did you know that over 16oo pieces of technology was developed by NASA and sold to companies called technology transfer. The brakepads of F1 racers use carbon-carbon which is the stuff they developed for the shuttle during rentry. Many new medicines was developed on the ISS.
    The equipment used to analyze moon rock is being used on 16th century art. Satellites, GPS, robotic advances used to build the rovers, sensors, scanners, various computer technology and far more.

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