It was only about a century ago that the first successful airplane was invented. Since then, flight technology has been advancing at an incredible pace. I’m sure that many people before that time didn't believe that flying to outer space would be possible. It might not have even been something that ever crossed their minds. Definitely, times have changed. Space flight has been proven to be possible. Humans landed on the moon. Up-close pictures of the surface of Mars were taken.
However, as much as people fancy and marvel at the achievements of space flight and enjoy the wonderful discoveries in space, do they really think it is necessary? Travelling to space requires huge investments in the form of time, money, resources and technology. Classifying it as only a hobby may not be enough to justify its costs. There has to be a much greater reason for the expensive and complex project to continue to receive support. I say it is a “hobby” because that is what it initially seemed like. It wasn’t something that seemed that important or essential to the general public, at least in the present.
Space programs have long been supported by governments. NASA, for instance, is funded by the United States government. Military agendas are most possibly the main reasons why the governments started supporting these space programs. It was no surprise that space technology accelerated during the Cold War era. As national security is not anymore tied to space dominance at the present, does it still make sense to continue pouring huge amounts of investments to continue travelling around space? Somehow, there actually seems to be some compelling reasons to continue our space pursuits.
Just recently, a new space project was announced. Planetary Resources, the company behind the project, plans to mine asteroids in the future. The project is backed by some big name individuals including Larry Page (Co-founder and CEO of Google), Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman of Google) and director James Cameron. The company’s plan is to build low-cost, computer-controlled spacecraft that can be used for surveying and mining in space. The spacecraft will mine near-Earth asteroids for Platinum, water, metals, minerals and other elements. If things go well, space mining can provide our world with tremendous economic and material benefits. Many resources here on Earth are known to be limited in quantity. In space, these resources are present in "near-infinite quantities".
The potential benefits of space mining seem to justify the investments made towards it. Of course, Planetary Resources and other such space programs risk failing. They may even run into legal troubles regarding the legality of asteroid mining and the ownership of the asteroids. However, the expected returns of space mining seems promising enough to make the project viable enough to attempt. It also helps that the projected cost of launching Planetary Resources’ spacecraft is in the “tens of millions” instead of the usual “hundreds of millions.” If this project is successful, space programs may very well contribute to the world’s fiscal and supply needs rather than just burn through resources like in the past.
Another reason to continue space programs is to discover new things in space that can help us. This reason may not be as convincing and the possible benefits may not be as clear as the previous reason, but I think it appropriately defends how space programs are going to be worth it in the long run. Take a look at what launching satellites and spacecraft out of the Earth’s atmosphere brought us. We would not have satellite television and navigation, as well as the weather and environment monitoring like we have now, if no one ever attempted to leave Earth. Also, humans desire to advance and flourish. Therefore, we are not going to be satisfied with living within the confines of Earth alone. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that our world is more than enough to sustain all living creatures in it. It is just that we always try to look at more possibilities and the natural progression would lead us to what lies in outer space. No one knows for sure what we may find. It may be a special resource or a new implementation for a technology. It may very well be something that can improve our lives in a significant way.
The third reason is to find a new planetary body that humans can potentially live in. There may come a time when living on the Earth is not possible anymore and humans have to migrate somewhere else. Overpopulation may also render it necessary for a portion of the population to move to another planet or other celestial bodies. In the cases mentioned, it would be a good to have an alternate Earth to lean back on. Like the old adage goes, it's better to be safe than sorry. Living outside of the Earth may seem like something you would hear from sci-fi movies or stories but it is actually more likely than it seems. Mars has been shown to support living organisms and was said to be relatively close to the environmental make-up of the Earth, besides the extremely high levels of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. The possibility is definitely out there. Who knows, maybe even one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn is human-friendly. We will not find out unless we explore and search through space.
All these reasons are compelling. However, I still don’t think space travel can be avoided, with or without these reasons. People will always find ways to do it. The potential gains will just give extra reasons and incentives to pursue space programs. Human have always desired to advance and gain more knowledge in whatever they do. Space pursuits are not going to be an exception to this. I personally think that space exploration is a good idea as long as there are clear and valid goals for it. I am all for progress and advancement. Of course, all these have to be done as safely and as sustainably as possible. I would hate to see humans exploiting the planets and asteroids and then causing permanent damage to them. I truly hope we have learned something from the environmental damages we have caused here on Earth.
Sources: The Verge article (1), The Verge article (2), Planetary Resources, Reuters, Popular Science article, The Guardian