Space Exploration, Is It The Destiny Of The Human Race, Or A Giant Waste Of Money?
How Long Until We Have Warp Engines, Teleportation Capacity, and Laser Swords?
Let's face it, we all know a lot of people we'd like to see shot off into space. Some people even want to go voluntarily. But is it worth the time, money, and effort it takes to launch people into the great unknown?
What is to be gained?
What, potentially, might be lost?
Like it or not, the human race has been exploring space for a long time. Most toddlers go through a period where they look up at the twinkling stars and
think, "Whoa!" before looking back down and forgetting all about the unreachable universe.
For the majority of recorded history, the only explanation we had for the stars was, "Those twinkling things are stars." That was as much as we knew. But then people started peering into the darkness with telescopes and coming up with new ideas.
The mystics have often said that within the stars the secrets of the universe are written. In a very real sense the great thinkers have contemplated the vision of the night sky and deciphered many of the laws by which the universe operates.
But if there is one undebatable quality about the human race, it is that it has an insatiable appetite for knowledge. Couple this with a sometimes painful awareness of our own limited knowledge, and it's easy to see how the promise of secrets held by unexplored space might be more than our collective species can resist.
What Is Space Exploration?
Space exploration is the dominion of physics. There was a brief time when the scientific community actually felt that they had figured out all the applicable laws of nature and that the only work that remained to be done was in the refinements of the measurements.
However, it was soon discovered that our knowledge was limited to physical events that happened on the Earth. In places with radically different gravitational fields, or at high speeds, or at tremendous temperature, our understanding of the governing laws of matter did not apply.
Science is a philosophy that involves creating models of understanding that yield accurate predictions. When a scenario is observed that is radically different than the predictions of the model, it is an indication that the model must be reevaluated.
A good example is the Earth centered model of the solar system, versus the sun centered model. The Earth centered model was refined enough to make accurate predictions for agriculture, but it's usefulness ends there.
When the human race aspired to travel to the moon, a critical first step was to accept the sun centered model of the solar system.
It is only through a more accurate conceptualization of the physical universe that the human race can meet or exceed the dreams of our ancestors.
Space exploration is the study of our solar system and the infinite universe beyond that. It is an examination of the physical laws that govern reality. Through knowledge of space, we advance in our understanding of the very fabric of reality.
Also, we get to build really big, and really cool rocket ships.
A Brief History Of Space Exploration
The Wright Brothers
It would be reasonable to suggest that space exploration began with the Wright brothers. On December 17th, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first flight in a vehicle heaver than air in a field outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
That moment represented the first time human beings were able to shed themselves of the grip of gravity.
However, it could be postulated that without a well-defined concept of gravity, flight too would have been impossible.
Many of the fundamental concepts that were to prove critical for space travel were published by Isaac Newton in 'Principia' published in 1687 (the full title is 'Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy').
If there has ever been a book that is the equivalent of a wizard's tomb of spells, 'Principia' is it. The concepts in Newton's work which included his laws of motion and universal gravitation still dominate the field of Physics to this day.
By defining how gravity works, Newton was able to theorize the concept of orbit. Newton postulated that if you built a cannon on top of a mountain and were able to shoot a cannonball fast enough, it's forward velocity could advance it such that it wouldn't be able to fall back to earth.
Newton even drew a rather silly diagram for what must have seemed to him like a fanciful idea. Would Newton be surprised to know that literally thousands of objects are currently in orbit around the Earth at this very moment?
Sputnik and the Russian Astronauts
On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first satellite, into space. This was a galvanizing moment for the US as they felt they had fallen behind the Russians in the race to dominate space.
The Russians scored more historic achievements in the upcoming years. These included:
With political tensions arising from the long enduring cold war, the Soviet successes in space applied great pressure to the United States to advance its own space program.
On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth." Officially beginning the "space race" between the US and Russia.
The Mercury 7 Astronauts
The time that passed from the first manned flight to the first human step on the moon was only 66 years. When you consider the complexities of the advancements in technology and the understanding of the physical laws of nature, the moon landing becomes an even more impressive achievement.
NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was formed in 1958, and the Mercury 7 astronauts were the men selected for NASA's first human spaceflight program.
The original seven were:
Project Mercury represents a fascinating time in the history of space exploration. It was the dawn of the nuclear age, and the United States was particularly energized by the prospect of space exploration.
Shows like 'Star Trek' became pop culture phenomenons and astronauts were celebrities. And the story of the Mercury 7 astronauts was told in the film 'The Right Stuff.'
The intense competition with Russia also had a galvanizing effect on space exploration, and the race to the moon was the concept that dominated the decade.
The Apollo Program and a Rocket Taller than the Statue of Liberty
The space race continued to intensify in the late 60s as the US launched the Apollo program with the aim of putting a man on the moon. The Apollo program also saw the development of the Saturn V rocket.
The Saturn V rocket has been called the most powerful machine ever built by man. It is a three-stage rocket capable of sending a spacecraft all the way to the moon. The Saturn V was launched 13 times between 1967 and 1973. The Saturn V stood at 363 ft., 58 ft. taller than the Statue of Liberty.
On July 21st, 1969, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, became the first human being to set foot on a celestial body other than the Earth. Upon stepping on the lunar surface he uttered the now famous phrase, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
It's interesting to consider the context of Armstrong's achievement. What explorer, other than perhaps Christopher Columbus, has opened the door to such a potentially wide frontier of human discovery?
As space travel continues to be embraced as a fundamental component to the evolving destiny of the human race, it's reasonable to speculate that Neil Armstrong's achievement will continue to resonate, even as the names of other great explorers begin to fade from memory.
Space Shuttle Exploration
The moon was considered something of a prize, but if getting to the moon is exponentially more difficulty than learning to fly, getting to another planet is also exponentially more difficult than getting a man to the moon.
In the years after the last Lunar Mission, NASA introduced a partially reusable spacecraft called the Space Shuttle for the purpose of launching satellites, probes and other pieces of technology like the Hubble Space Telescope.
The space shuttle was used for 135 missions beginning in 1981 until its retirement in 2011.
Robots in Space
In the last few decades, NASA has come to recognize that manned space travel is not the most cost-effective means of exploration. Keeping a human being alive requires maintaining very precise atmospheric and temperature conditions.
Electronic sensors, on the other hand, do not need to be coddled like living flesh, and so the current era of space exploration is more of an era of robotics.
Significant space probes launched in the past 50 years are:
Is Space Exploration Worth The Cost?
Space Exploration Yearly Budgets by Nation
The United States has long been the nation to spend the most on space exploration. The 20.7 billion budgeted for 2018 was almost twice that of the expenditures of the next nation on the list.
It is difficult to obtain accurate information as to the true expenditures made by various nations of the world for space exploration as these numbers can fall into the category of national defense spending.
Some nations, such as China's CNSA, have been ramping up their dedication to space exploration in recent years, while others such as Russia's Roscosmos have seen budget reductions. The European Union's ESA (European Space Agency) has also seen a budget increase in recent years.
Because the budget for space exploration is commonly measured in billions of dollars, there have always been questions as to whether that money could be used to greater humanitarian effect in other efforts. Billions of dollars buys a lot of Big Macs after all!
In addition to the inherent cost of space exploration, there is also the concern due to the fundamentally dangerous nature of space related projects.
Fatal Space Related Accidents
Space exploration has been enormously expensive, and the price is measured both in currency and in human life. Over the years there have been several high profile accidents that have claimed the lives of many astronauts.
Many of the original astronauts selected for the Mercury 7 program were military test pilots, also a high-risk profession. However, the enormous cost of space exploration means that space related fatal incidents become highly politicized.
Any space related fatal incident revives the ever present discussion as to whether or not space exploration should be the beneficiary of taxpayer funding.
Some notable incidents are:
Lost Cosmonaut Conspiracy Theories
The US astronauts that were lost during their work with NASA are fairly well documented, but in the Cold War era, the exact information as to what was going on in the Russian space program is often met with skepticism.
The fact is that to win the space race to the moon, NASA had to take some risks that, by today's standards, wouldn't be acceptable. When you consider that the cell phone in your pocket has more computational power than the central computer on the lunar lander, you start to get the idea.
Soviet Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first man to die on a space mission in 1967.
According to the legend, Komarov knew the Soyuz 1 which he would be piloting was unsafe, and he only agreed to pilot the mission on the condition that he would have an open casket funeral afterwards.
True to his concerns, the Soyuz 1 suffered a number of problems and the parachute failed to deploy after reentry. The spacecraft crashed into the earth killing Komarov, and the open casket funeral caused a media sensation.
As terrible as the Komarov story is, there are other theories that the Soviet Union attempted, and failed, at a lunar mission prior to the success of Apollo 11. The Russian mission would have involved only one Cosmonaut (unlike the three that were assigned in the US program).
It is chilling to consider the terror and the loneliness of a single astronaut attempting to make a solo landing on the moon. Worse still is the thought that in the event that something went wrong, the Cosmonaut might have been launched to die in deep space with no hope of his remains ever returning to Earth.
So, Is Space Exploration Unforgivably Reckless?
In the context of the tremendous cost and the loss of human life, it's reasonable to question why we'd ever seriously contemplate sending a man or woman to probably die in the cold dark vacuum of space.
The answer is simple, because it's there!
When Reinhold Messner made the first attempt to climb Mt. Everest without Oxygen. A reporter asked him, "Why did you go up there to die?" To which Messner replied, "I didn't go up there to die, I went up there to live."
Statistically speaking, the place where most human beings die is in bed. That doesn't mean that a bed is the most dangerous place in the universe, but the fact remains that beds claim the most lives.
Human beings are mortal and they are born with a limited capacity to influence the world. In the thousands of years that our species has been in existence, we've gone from chasing alpha predators with sticks and rocks, to utterly dominating the planet.
Cheetahs can run faster than human beings and gorillas are stronger, but no other species has a snowball's chance of leaving footprints on the moon.
Perhaps the question should be asked, what is the cost of not exploring space? What would human beings be if they didn't look up at the night sky and wonder about the twinkling lights. What if people never aspired to understand, or to achieve, or to walk among the stars?
But, if the philosophical argument isn't convincing, the fact is that there are a whole lot of technological advancements that we enjoy on a daily basis that are a direct result of space exploration.
A Better Model Leads To New Discoveries
The thing about scientific breakthroughs is that they yield whole fields of new knowledge just as if you'd opened a door to a previously undiscovered library.
A new scientific model that replaces an old one changes the scientific perspective on everything, not just the model itself.
For example, when Einstein proposed his theory of general relativity, the scientific community found they could finally accurately predict the orbit of Mercury which had previously not obeyed the predictions suggested by Newtonian Physics.
A scientific breakthrough produces answers to questions you haven't even thought to ask yet.
A similar phenomenon can be seen with Newton who, through his definition of gravity, was able to postulate the idea of a planetary orbit almost as an afterthought. When you have a better map, you get to your destination more quickly.
As Captain Kirk said, space is the final frontier, and human beings are born with an innate desire to challenge themselves. It is true that space is a cold, merciless, and unforgiving taskmaster. But as a teacher, space exploration has no equal.
Satellites And Telecommunication And Aeronautics, Oh My!
The easiest way to recognize the importance of space exploration is to take note of the ways technology developed to further that exploration is applied to our daily lives.
It is not as if NASA finishes a mission to the moon and puts everything they've learned into a box that they nail shut and hide in some warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant. Nope, knowledge is Pandora's box, and once the information is out it is out forever.
Satellites are probably the most obvious way that various space programs have improved our lives. There are many different types of satellites performing many different functions.
Here's only a short list:
All of these various satellites allow us access to important information as well as transfer it all over the planet. In the modern era, the human race is able to see more, share more, and act more quickly on data that had been beyond our reach even a few decades ago.
Space Exploration Saves Lives
We've already discussed the tremendous cost of space exploration, but what about the savings? What about the ability we have now to organize disaster relief because of communications satellites?
Or what about our ability to create more and more accurate weather models to predict imminent storms and organize life-saving evacuations?
Space exploration has given the human race an 'eye in the sky' to monitor and respond to all manner of disasters that happen at home. It should be noted that every time a life is lost due to space exploration it is a hard number while the true amount of lives saved is impossibly abstract.
NASA Spin-Off Technologies
In addition to the benefits of the direct aspirations of space exploration, there are countless ways in which the technology developed by NASA as well as other space agencies has been applied to our daily lives.
Spin-off technologies are the names given to advancements that have come through further application of technology used for the advancement of space flight. From heat shields to life support systems that work in zero gravity, the list of new technology inspired by space is enormous.
Here's a partial list of some of items that have either been invented or improved upon as a direct result of space exploration:
The technological advancements of the last half century have been enormous. Sure, we don't have teleportation units or laster blasters, but the human race has seen an amazing advancement in other areas.
To get an idea of how far technology has come, go and watch a James Bond movie from the 60s. In the early James Bond films, the secret agents technological gadgets were a major plot component.
It's almost comical to watch the 60s era James Bond pull out a telephone the size of a suitcase, or use a device the size of a small room to evaluate a fingerprint.
It's amazing to think that the actual technology that we have available today outpaced the imagination of science fiction writers of only 50 years ago. Our technology has progressed so rapidly that complex spy gadgets have ceased to be a major plot device in James Bond films.
Daniel Craig's version of the character made light of this development in 2012's Skyfall when he smugly holds up a radio to thwart a villain. It's a tongue-in-cheek admission that even the fabulous super spy can't keep up with all the new developments that arise from space exploration
Space Exploration In The Private Sector: Space X
It could be that one of the major arguments against space exploration is about to become irrelevant. In 2002 Elon Musk founded Space X, a private space transportation service.
As a private company, Space X could create the blueprint for space travel that is funded by private money rather than taxpayer dollars. In February of 2018, Space X got headlines for test launch of one of their Falcon rockets.
The test launch included a tesla roadster driven by an astronaut that was launched into space. The launch received further pop culture status when people began to jokingly suggest that the test launch served as a great way for Elon Musk to get rid of a body.
To date, the rumor has not been confirmed or denied since the Tesla roadster with the astronaut has settled into an orbit that passes beyond the orbit of Mars, and is essentially lost in space.
Is Space Exploration Sustainable?
Space exploration is expensive and dangerous, but it's likely here for the long term. More and more nations are increasing their budgets for space exploration, and with the addition of private companies dedicated to the task.
The fascination with exploration continues to drive human ambition, and with clever financing solutions coming into existence, the future of space exploration appears bright.
The Quest For Extraterrestrial Life
Does life exist in the universe?
The answer to that question is yes. Of course it does. It exists on Earth. You the reader are alive as is your dog and your cat and maybe your plant if you remembered to water it.
The bigger questions is whether life on Earth is an anomaly, or whether life in the universe is common.
The aspiration to seek extraterrestrial life has actually been the catalyst for much of our understanding about how life came to exist here on Earth. Scientist have locked themselves in their parents basements to create complex atriums of amino acids which the've then hit with cattle prods in an attempt to create single-celled organisms.
To date, a completely functional method for creating life out of nothing hasn't been perfected (and that's probably for the best). However, the general consensus is that for life to occur there has to be a pretty specific set of preexisting conditions (the kind your health care can't fault you for).
Most of the probes and rovers that have been sent out to planets and moons have had some sort of an experiment designed to test for conditions capable of sustaining life. However, even when these have come back positive they seem to result in even more questions.
Moons or plants capable of having liquid water or oxygen atmospheres are seen as the most likely life carriers. There is also a quest to discover worlds orbiting distant suns that exist within the "habitable zone."
The habitable zone is the set of orbits around a given star that allow a planet the possibility to support liquid water. By 2013, scientists had already discovered over 40 billion such planets.
The success of shows like 'The X-Files' or films like 'E.T.' or 'Alien' show our collective fascination with the subject of alien life. However, the quest for habitable planets may not be so much to discover new a new species, but to find a new home for our own.
The Earth Is Doomed
I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the Earth is on a countdown to destruction. Prior to the advent of the scientific age, the human race could have coasted along, content in the knowledge that our lives were short, but the world, at least, would endure.
Turns out the world will one day be a smoldering, lifeless husk that will cease to be able to support life. The moon could be to blame for this result, as orbiting bodies tend to become tidally locked after millions of years.
The moon is already tidally locked to the Earth which is why we only see one face of the moon.
But in millions or billions of years, the Earth will also become tidally locked to the moon which will mostly likely create changes that render the planet uninhabitable.
Also, in about five billion years, the sun will expand into a red giant and engulf the Earth before collapsing back down into a white dwarf star that will slowly cool over a period of millions of years.
I don't know about you, but I find that to be kind of depressing.
And to make matters even worse, those are best case scenarios. The Earth is a sitting duck in the vast rifle range of space. Unidentified interstellar bodies are hurtling through the galaxy at speeds that would render the Earth a smoldering crater if they should happen to impact us.
The chances of that are unlikely, but on a timeline of billions of years everything becomes a lot more probable. It's already happened once, and all you have to do is try and count the craters on the moon to understand there's a lot of celestial junk flying around out there.
The inescapable conclusion is that if we, the human race, want to preserve something of ourselves beyond the expiration date of our planet and our solar system, we're going to have to figure out how to colonize another world.
It seems like a daunting task doesn't it?
Relax, we've got billions of years (probably), and once we figured out how to fly, we were on the moon in an eye blink (cosmically speaking).
Space: It's All That's Left!
Human beings have been exploring space since the very first caveman accidentally ate some Peyote, crawled out of his cave, and sat staring at the stars until a tiger noticed he was incapacitated and ate him.
Even when people were exploring the Earth, all they really were looking for was a giant stairway or elevator to get them up into the heavens. The universe has always captured our collective imagination as a species. We were born of Earth but our spirits are for the stars.
The development of the human race from leaden terrestrial creatures to ethereal space exploring beings is in its infancy, but the first awkward steps are the most difficult.
Some folks say it costs too much, some say it's too dangerous, and some have never gotten past the Peyote habit the caveman discovered. But let's face it, space isn't going anywhere. It's always going to be leering down at us like a disapproving parent screaming, "Clean your room!"
The time of human beings might be limited, but you don't have to observe the species for all that long for one indisputable fact to become clear. Odds are it's more probable that human beings will somehow manage to pollute the entirety of infinite space before they ever succeed in cleaning up the Earth.