Is space exploration just a pie-in-the-sky adventure?Sunday, October 17, 2021
Mankind's long fascination and obsession with the sun, moon, and stars — partly driven by fear of their influence on the Earth — gave rise to existential explanations based on superstition, religion, and science developed over time.
People wanted answers to haunting questions such as: Where is the beginning and end of space? What lies beyond our planetary system? Was Earth made by God or did it evolve? Is there intelligent life out there and could it be more advanced than the people on Earth? Have space beings visited Earth and do they come and go regularly?
With the development of better telescopes, the large planets in the immediate vicinity of Earth were identified and a very rudimentary understanding began to emerge. That improved further with increasingly more sophisticated developments such as airplanes that raised the possibility of flying to space.
The feasibility of putting a man or an object into Earth's orbit got a boost from the use of rockets during World War II. The idea of nuclear weapons delivered by intercontinental rockets became a major preoccupation during the height of the cold war.
In 1957, in its quest for a military advantage and to prove the superiority of communism over capitalism, the then Soviet Union put a satellite into orbit around the world. The United States responded with its own space programme, eventually landing men on the moon. Not to be left behind the new superpower China developed its own space progamme. Now there is private space travel.
Britain's Prince William recently mooted the profound view when he said that the priority should be fixing the Earth, not exploring space. There is a generally held belief that one should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but the prince's view is not by any means an idle thought.
Contemplate the mind-boggling amount of time and money spent since the 1950s on space travel. Meanwhile billions of people in the world survive on US$2 per day in conditions which could be fixed, for example diseases, hunger, lack of drinking water, and poor health-care – some believe that the novel coronavirus pandemic could have been stopped in its tracks – with a fraction of the money spent on space.
National security and technological advances are often given as justifications for space exploration. Those who are against the orgy of spending on space ask: What can be gained from knowing how the universe operates because man can do little about it?
At the same time, they argue, mankind is rapidly making the Earth uninhabitable by accelerating climate change. What is needed is more money to be spent on saving planet Earth because the world's population cannot move to another planet even if one is found that is habitable. Space exploration cannot prevent hurricanes or earthquakes, prevent droughts and floods, or prevent forest fires and pandemics.
We suggest that, given the state of the planet Earth and the fact that the majority of its people are poor, more of the money being spent on space exploration could be better spent on fixing the problems here. We have no objection if the very rich want to spend their money going into space.
The United States, Russia, and the People's Republic of China have poor people and environmental problems in their own countries which urgently require attention.
Is this preoccupation with space just pie in the sky?