In a bit of good news from the WH administration, Trump signed on Tuesday a bill authorizing $19.5 billion in NASA spending for 2017 and updating their mission to include the human exploration of Mars.
I’ve been following space news for decades since I dreamed of being an astronaut when I was a boy.
Throughout that time, seeing the ups and downs in the industry (mainly driven by politics and economics), I hoped that we as a species would not lose sight of the long-term benefits of space exploration and would continue to invest. I’m glad to see that has happened at least for the foreseeable future.
Those that have worked in a corporate setting may know the difficulty of advocating for long-term investments with the pressure to deliver short-term results. Without either a visionary leader or large cash reserves, the short-term generally tends to take precedent. I see space travel as the ultimate long-term investment for humankind.
In high school, I did my research and discovered my best shot of being an astronaut was to become an engineer and a pilot. I received my Mechanical Engineering degree from the Cooper Union in NYC. However, my attempt to get into the Air Force was stalled due to less than perfect vision, and my dream took a detour.
I began my career designing cars for Honda & Porsche instead of designing space vehicles. I began to fly paragliders and hang-gliders instead of jet fighters.
Yet, my passion for space exploration never subsided, and the reason to invest in human exploration of space hasn’t changed much in all that time. I see three main reasons for investing in the final frontier, all of which have a long time horizon:
- Human survival and the propagation of the species: The death of our Sun in a few billion years will mean our entire solar system would not be habitable. In the meantime, there are more pressing concerns for life on our planet. Whether it be the destruction of our environment through climate change, a new ice age based on the tilt of the earth, or a massive asteroid strike, our planet may not always be suitable for human life well before the Sun becomes an issue. The only way to guarantee the survival of the human species for the very long term is through space exploration and interplanetary colonization. Updating NASA’s mission to formally include human travel to Mars is a major step in this direction.
- Exhaustion of natural resources: as a closed ecosystem, the resources on our small planet are finite. We are already on a path to exhaust staples such as helium, and industrial metals (zinc, silver, gold, and copper) by 2050. Mining other planets, comets, or asteroids, when feasible, would be lucrative and in demand, making up for inevitable shortages on Earth. For the resources listed, we have just over 3 decades to create an action plan for finding an alternate supply off-planet. If we consider that SpaceX, for example, in just 15 years went from a concept to several families of launch vehicles with successful trips from and to Earth, that seems like an achievable target. As a matter of fact, two companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have already been founded to do just this, and their prediction is this will happen by 2025.
- First Contact: – given the sheer size of the universe, the odds that our planet harbors the only intelligent species are exceedingly small. The potential for great advancement of human knowledge in areas of science, technology, health and medicine, agriculture, etc. that comes from the discovery and communications with our interstellar neighbors, is in and of itself worthy of the cost of exploration. This may be the longest of the long shots, but fortunately, it’s only one of the many reasons to continue exploring the cosmos.