Space: Why Bother?


Is space worth it?

Another year, another whirl of astronautical triumphs and failures, all at the taxpayer’s expense. With environmental problems already testing us to our limits, do we really need to go in search of the mysteries of the universe?

Not Worth It

Space eats money. The technical challenges of space exploration, particularly the manned variety, are such that any extraterrestrial venture is fabulously expensive. NASA’s 2007 budget? $16 billion. Accompanying this massive outlay is the failure rate. Space is the most hostile environment we know of – yet we’re launching super-expensive machinery into it, hoping everything will be fine. All too often, it isn’t. India has recently lost an £80m lunar probe. NASA lost both its Mars Surveyor spacecraft in 1998, at a cost of $125m. It’s a bottomless black hole. Why keep trying to fill it?

Space Can’t Solve Our Problems. “Spread humanity into space” goes the argument, but when only the richest reach the stars, it’s surely a nonsense idea. How exactly does this help our worsening overpopulation problem? It makes sense in the long run – but first things first, we have a planet to save.

Space Is Too Damn Big. The number of discovered exoplanets (“those outside the solar system”) now exceeds 400, with more popping into view every month. But in a practical sense, this is meaningless. They’re just too far away to ever go there. Not for nothing is space described as the “final frontier”: the distances are impossibly vast. When the best imagined speed to the nearest star results in a century’s travel-time (one way), you can be sure E.T. won’t be popping by for candy anytime soon.

Worth It

Space Is A Bargain. The work that NASA did with its relatively paltry $19b budget in 2009 is simply amazing. Sound like a lot? Compare it with the cost of the Iraq War ($10b a month) or GDP ($13 trillion+). Considering how tough it is to work in space, it’s terrific value for money. And the space program isn’t a drain – it generates revenue, creates jobs and stimulates many industries. Space exploration is investment at home. Without it, many technologies we take for granted probably wouldn’t exist. (Not Velcro – that’s a myth).

Space Is How We Fix Our Own Planet. Remember the incredible image of Earth-rise (shown below), described by photographer Galen Rowell as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”? That’s a gift the space program has bestowed upon us – ecological self-awareness. We know how fragile our world is because we can see it, bright and alive against the backdrop of the most profound emptiness we know. The help to our planet is technological, too: For example, you may have heard of a little invention developed for spacecraft called solar panels.

We Are Too Small. In July 1994, the remnants of comet Shoemaker-Levy smacked into Jupiter. Some of the holes left in its atmosphere were bigger than the Earth. Forget cheesy Bruce Willis films: it’s scientific fact that we’re a celestial sitting duck and it’s only a matter of time. It’s true we can’t move entire populations, but we can colonize other worlds (in theory) and as a species, give ourselves a fighting chance. Yet it’s not just raw survival instinct that should propel us towards the stars – it’s the fact that we’re human, and it’s what we do. We’re pioneers. It’s why we left the trees, why we crossed the oceans, how the proverbial West was won. Without exploration, we stagnate. Exploring space is how we can remain ourselves.


Images: ‘J’, Bill Anders

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.