I was having a discussion recently during which I advocated going to Mars. To which one of the other people present asked "why"? Further, as the discussion got heated and began to mutate, as heated discussions do, he put forward his opinion that due to difficulties that were really only now being realized, it was unlikely that people would ever go to Mars in any sort of quantity. Perhaps five hundred people in the next two hundred years.
Now, to me, the denigrating of space exploration is basest heresy. I'm serious here - I get downright religious when I talk about going into space. And I realize that this means I have several big ol' blind spots on the topic. Whenever you slam shut the steel doors of dismissal on someone's opinion just because it is morally wrong, you are setting yourself up for a fall. Ignoring what could be very rational arguments just because they are evil ill-prepares you to fight them.
So I'm going to address this heresy (which some of you may share, and shame on you) by tackling the question "Space: Why bother?".
First, let me set the stage. At some point, we are going to reach what I have dubbed "the Magnus Robot Fighter Future". In the early 1960s there was a comic book, Magnus Robot Fighter, set in a distant future utopia. All of people's wants and needs are catered to by robots. Of course, so as to have adversaries, some of the robots are "good" (take care of people) and some are "bad" (decide that people are by and large useless), and thus Magnus has Robots to Fight. But the point here is, technology will advance to a point where everyone's needs are basically taken care of.
So what's worth doing then? I imagine that the bulk of the populace will sink into indolence, hitting the reset button on their droud for all eternity. But there are a significant number of us who feel that one should do some things not because they are fun, but because they are difficult. Even now people are climbing Everest in increasing numbers, and doing other unnecessary and arduous things because they want to. And that is why we will go to Mars, and beyond. Because deep in the human psyche is a need to conquer, to strive against difficulty, to succeed and not to relent. And, luckily, we have yet another frontier to provide with that challenge.
So the short answer is: "Because we want to." Aside from the arguments based on utility (ranging from "space exploration advances science and technology" to "we can make perfect ball bearings in space"), which are valid but insufficient, the simple fact is that doing hard things ennobles us. Once you have covered food, shelter, and material comfort - that is what is left. Some might say, that's why we are here.
Because exploration is an heroic endeavor, and we need heroic endeavors. They bring out those traits in us considered most noble. What other place have we for courage? In our enlightened age, most of the traditional sources of bravery and derring-do are no longer as valid because the people down the road are no longer the enemy, but rather just more people. A society, just as does a person, needs a reason for existing more than just simple continuance. The conquest of space provides that.
And, as an end note for those who would rather solve the myriad problems of Earth first, go for it. But how many of the problems are insoluble, and how many of the solutions are really just temporary? Exploration and progress is permanent. Obviously we can't turn away from the problems down here. But neither should we turn away from the triumphs up there.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra