why we need to explore space now more than we ever did before
We need big ideas if we’re going to successfully transition to a post-industrial society.
For a world where billions struggle with food security and literacy, and the nations with the most advanced economies automating away job after job, developing markets quickly catching up with them as they do so, fueling a resurgence of virulent, isolationist far right populism, it would be insane to propose that space exploration could be a solution to quite a few of those problems. As in utterly absurd. Where do we get the money and technology to safely send humans and machines to explore the solar system, and what would be the benefit? Even if we’re successful, hundreds of millions would still struggle to get food on their plate, there would still be war, and despite what utopian sci-fi has taught us, there would still be war and corruption in many regions across the globe. Space exploration is no panacea, which is in no small part why colonizing other planets and solar systems is also a trope in dystopian fiction, usually done to escape a dying world in hopes for a sort of hard reset on civilization, and the reset itself can be fuel for some rather gruesome storytelling if the author isn’t optimistic about humanity.
So, certainly, new policies meant to reeducate and align economies to make room for humans in more creative jobs, rather than the typical industrial era style cubicle farms in which the current powers that be are expecting them to languish today, are the answer. How would rocketing into the wild, black, starlit yonder fit into this picture of the future? Well, at the risk of sounding crazy, the proper answer to that is everything. In the very long term, space is what ultimately matters. We live and die by what happens out there, we just don’t exist long enough as individuals to recognize it sometimes. I’d tell you to ask the dinosaurs or 66% of Ordovician organisms what they think about space’s influence on our planet’s habitability, but they’re too dead to answer. Dinosaurs were famously finished off by a comet, and two thirds of life 440 million years ago may have been irradiated into extinction by a gamma ray burst of a nearby supernova. Our ability to survive ultimately means that we can dodge cosmic cataclysms like this by leaving the planet if need be.
And these are not views of fringe utopians. Billionaires who made their cash in tech and engineering, like Musk, Bezos, and Milner, are investing a whole lot of their hard earned money in making all this possible by trying to lower the cost of going into orbit and financing space exploration for the reasons I just outlined. They want to start by selling their services to governments to keep their space programs running, but are also heavily pitching all this to fellow billionaires interested in seeing space with their own eyes. Then, the money would be used to finance bases on other words and making the long term jaunts to the Moon and Mars for work and leisure costs about as much as a nice house, rather than the $50 million per round trip it is today. This is actually a great thing for the future of jobs because making all this work will require tens, if not hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists, and a large support staff to make sure their designs are tested, implemented, sent off to space, and maintained by trained experts who’ll travel to space.
Spinoffs to create more efficient and powerful energy grids can be put to use right here on Earth to help infrastructure woes across the world, recruit new engineers and experts to help deploy and maintain it, and allow even more space travel and exploration programs from nations now enabled to do so. If you’re wondering why we couldn’t just solve the infrastructure problems on Earth right now and transfer that knowledge to space, it’s simple. Fixing the infrastructure of a developing country usually comes down to NGOs telling a local political leader to go with the cheapest, easiest route. There’s no need for cross-pollination of skills and innovative engineering solutions that have to really be modular and self-contained, but immensely scalable. Even more disconcerting, the chorus of voices asking us to ignore space for the sake of feeding and developing struggling countries ignores that we can already do it, but face a distribution problem rather than a resource one. So yes, we can absolutely do space and helping the developing world at the same time.
Over the long term, governments of wealthy nations needs to ramp up their spending on space exploration and encourage competitions among current and new aerospace companies to execute the planned missions. Think of it as the space stimulus. Even though people will balk at the price tags, while the end result will be soaring through space, almost all of the money will be spent right here on Earth to build the spacecraft, robots, tools, train all the astronauts, and support the missions. Everyone from research scientists, to programmers, to chemists, to custodians, to cooks will be necessary to drag all their projects to the finish line. All of them will be gainfully employed for years as the missions continue, and those who lack the skills but needed to fill the required positions could be trained to do their new jobs. While this may sound like wishful fiction, the big question we need to answer is why it seems like fantasy. Because people don’t want jobs supporting space travel and future technologies? Because they can’t be trained? Why not?
Ultimately, we want our leaders to actually do their jobs and lead us into a better world than we have today. Is guiding us to another century in offices and factories, cranking out the same widgets we’ve always used a laudable goal? It’s not even possible anymore thanks to automation, though today’s leaders in the United States seem blissfully, alarmingly unaware of this, as they struggle to imagine something that’s been happening under their very noses for decades being possible in 50 years. On the other hand, embracing the lofty goals required to successfully explore space and establish ways to get off our world in the event of a cataclysm we can’t prevent or ride out in bunkers, will require new jobs which actually have to take full advantage of automation to cost-effectively scale the production of rockets, space planes, orbital constructions, and 3D printing and expanding extraterrestrial bases for humans. We as a species need to have a goal that’s more than making a new app, or buying another widget, or playing around with financial snake oil to make imaginary money. And space exploration is that goal.