Why Human Space Exploration Matters
Unity proves elusive, but Americans who cannot seem to agree on much else— from Trumpian and traditionalist conservatives on the right, to certain libertarians, to liberals and progressive social justice advocates— do seem to agree on at least one big policy thing: space does not matter much, and other things matter much more than space. Cue the familiar disagreements on what those “other things” are. But the first part undoubtedly stands. Broadly speaking, the principals guiding our politics today—and, it would seem, the median journalist and current events commentator on Twitter— could not care less about whether humans make progress in space, or whether we as a species ever develop the technologies required to allow human inhabitation of other planets and celestial bodies at scale. (Transitory enthusiasm for the recent Perseverance landing does not, to my mind, negate this judgement.) The voting masses, by and large, seem to share in their leaders’ lack of real and urgent concern in this regard. Other crises have consumed us, and space seems—as in fact it is—so remote from our cares.
As a result, our discourse doesn’t much dwell on the desirability, not to mention the possible necessity, of advancing human space exploration capabilities.
I view this as an unfortunate collective oversight.
While the yields to space exploration and the development of spaceflight technology may appear minimal in the immediate future, shifting our perspective to the longer term renders the human situation vis a viz space exploration extremely clear: if humans want to survive in perpetuity, we need to establish ourselves on other planets in addition to Earth. It is as simple as that. And yet we are not doing all that much to make that happen.
To be clear, I’m long on Earth, too, and hope that technological improvements will continue to allow our species to get “more from less” right here on the third rock from the sun, enabling us to keep occupying the planet that saw us evolve into consciousness. I like to imagine that the distant future on Earth has the potential to be an extremely pleasant one, as advances in our scientific understanding and bio-technical praxis should hopefully allow our descendants to clean up any of the remaining messes previous generations will have left behind (e.g., nuclear and industrial waste, high amounts of atmospheric carbon, other lingering nasties) and stable-state free societies will hopefully allow all persons (or very nearly all persons) to live free and meaningful lives in productive community and exchange with their fellows. As the previous qualification highlights, the trickiest problems here on Earth and extending to wherever humans end up in the spacefaring age will still be social and political, and their successful resolution will depend more on the future state of our governing arts than our hard sciences.
But regarding the negative events that could very well happen to Earth I think we all need to be equally clear: life might not make it here. There is no guarantee that it will, and in the very long run, with the expansion and subsequent death of our sun, we know with near certainty that it will not. Consider just a few possible extinction-level events that could strike even earlier: large meteors, supervolcanic eruptions, drastic climactic disruption of the “Snowball Earth” variety. As SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently observed on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, “A species that does not become multiplanetary is simply waiting around until there is some extinction event, either self-inflicted or external.”
This statement, applied to the human species, is obviously true on its face. As doomsday events go a giant asteroid might be more shocking, since we (people living today) have never experienced one before while concerned atomic scientists warn us about the nuclear bomb all the time, but the odds that we blow ourselves up are still there. Slim, but there. It’s more plausible that a severe nuclear war and the nuclear winter it would likely trigger would leave the human population greatly reduced as opposed to completely extinct, but then the question becomes: why is that a risk we would want to take? The bomb is here to stay for now, but there is no reason that 100% of known life in the universe needs to stay here on Earth to keep it company, waiting around for something even more destructive to show up.
While we’re on that happy subject: Do you have any good intuitions about our collective chances against hostile, or simply arrogant or domineering, technologically-advanced extraterrestrial lifeforms, if and/or when they decide to pay us a visit on our home turf?
These scary situation sketches will suffice. At bottom, the core reason I am a believer in the need to make life—and not just human life—multiplanetary is the same basic reason I would never counsel a friend to keep all their money and valuables in one place: diversification is good. Wisdom and experience suggest we store precious resources in multiple safe(ish) places. Diversification limits our exposure to risk, and increases our resilience when bad things do happen. One reserve gets hit, two or three others survive, and you probably feel that the effort to spread things out was worth it.
What I’m saying here has strong undercurrents of common sense, yet our approach to the human population itself—the universal store and font of “human capital”—does not currently prioritize diversification to the degree our technological capabilities would allow. The distribution of the human population, and of almost all human knowledge and works, is overwhelmingly local. (Let us set to one side the possibility that aliens somewhere maintain an archive of captured human information.) Establishing outposts at least as large as those we maintain in Antarctica on the Moon and Mars, or other more suitable sites, by the end of this century would be a great first step toward genuinely diversifying the physical locations of the most precious resources known to us: human consciousness and creativity, human love and human soul, the great works in which all these things are displayed. Add also to this list repositories of scientific knowledge and knowhow, seed reserves, and certain materials necessary to re-start the manufacturing of fundamental technologies. Spreading these goods to a few additional locations within the solar system would be a major species-and-civilization-level accomplishment that all living at the time could feel satisfied by, and even take some pride in. And this is something that we seem to be just on the cusp of being able to do, given our recent and rapid technological advances in rocketry, computers, and materials science and engineering, among other important fields for space exploration and settlement. Quickly the uniplanetary human situation is becoming, if it is not already, one of pure choice.
Who, then, will take us beyond the “exclusively-Earth-based” stage of our civilization? Many will have a role to play, as space is not just for nerds. Humanists and economists (two audiences with whom this site is popular) should want humans to greatly improve their spaceflight and off-world-dwelling capabilities, too—not just technophiles and STEM types. There need not be a clash of visions between cyber-futurists who would bring self-sustaining cities to Mars and classicists who would rather see us die out on Earth than submit to a posthuman, dystopic future among the stars. Alignment of visions is key. Humanistic input early in the development of space settlement plans would allow for the design of better, more user-oriented (in the richest sense of the phrase) systems and processes for settling space colonies. The kind of space future humans have—and I am relatively confident we will have a robust one, someday—depends in part on the kinds of choices we make today about the plans for and structure of our involvements on other worlds. All sorts of experts, artists, and practitioners—from physicists to economists to poets—should have a say in these decisions.
Certainly humanists and economists could exert a positive influence on our space future by leaning into, instead of opposing, human space exploration, and by taking a constructive-critical interest in the plans and ideas of those who are already making progress toward space exploration today. Rather than cede the field completely to those who will build the rockets and raise the off-world settlements, social science and humanities advocates should get invested in the various problems space exploration will pose and that their disciplinary perspectives can help resolve. For instance, one space challenge for humanists and economists to consider is what kind of cultural practices and social institutions will be necessary to enable small, fledgling space colonies to grow and to thrive with a minimum of conflict, all while poised precariously somewhere out there on the barren edge of a brutally indifferent cosmos.
There are other questions as well: How well will markets function—and what kinds of markets will function—in remote areas among small groups of space settlers? Are there minimum population density requirements for an adequate off world division of labor, considering not just baseline productive necessities but also humankind’s need to consume and participate in leisure-based culture? As these complex, interdisciplinary queries suggest, successful space exploration and off-world settlement will entail much more than a string of engineering advances. Humanists, economists, historians, and indeed all students of human culture will continue to have their place in the economy of things, even when that economy is dispersed amongst the stars.
Analogies to our space present spring to mind from other ages of human adventure, exploration, and discovery. Certain critics of space exploration are wont to point out the rapacity that has often attended early human colonial efforts, like those of European powers in the “New World”-era Americas. I point out in reply, however, that such comparisons are hardly appropriate when discussing the settlement of barren planets wholly void of (sentient) life. At a minimum, concerns about the exploitation of other worlds would require there to be exploitable agents on those worlds in order to be justified. In reality, we have little reason to believe that there will be much to find on our first stops beyond Earth besides (potentially very valuable) minerals, rocks, dust, and ice. Discovering liquid water, or microscopic life, or even hints of extinct former life, would be like finding El Dorado. But unlike the conquistadores, we have good evidence-based reasons to believe in the existence of what we are looking for, and we can all but guarantee that no blood will be shed in the process of our looking for it.
(I’d be more worried about the potential for competition among fellow human space settlers or prospectors to occasionally turn violent in the absence of a meaningful law enforcement presence somewhere on the space frontier, than the possibility that we might discover, and then tyrannically dominate, ET’s home planet. And in the latter case, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that we would automatically be the ones doing the dominating.)
Space is vast, and the idea of humans exploring it is epic. But we will not realize that epic vision if the main legacy of those living today ends up being digital participation in dysfunctional politics, a declining emphasis on education, innovation, and productivity, and the willful sacrifice of culture to “culture wars.” Continuing down this path for decades would spell death to the optimistic interstellar imagination. If we choose to remain caught up with fighting amongst ourselves, we will just be “waiting around” in precisely the sense that Musk says, and we’ll be dumbing ourselves down as we do so. But if we choose instead—in budgetary and investment decisions and with our words and arguments about the relative importance of human space exploration in a world of scarce resources—to collaborate around a more hopeful, humane blueprint for the future continuity of our species, a much better world, a world of worlds, becomes possible for our descendants. In this world, the human future is significantly more secure than it is now, and the conditions for those who will inhabit it are far better. Isn’t this a world we would all prefer to be working toward?
Shanon FitzGerald is Assistant Websites Editor at Liberty Fund. He can be found on Twitter @shanonspeaks.