Ethics of (space) Exploration

A friend posted on Facebook today: “When I was a little girl I loved learning about space, solar systems, planets, walking on the moon. But when I grew up I learnt how much space exploration costs and how many people here are sick, hungry, abused. Now I see no justification for funding our curiosity until we improve life on earth”

Yesterday I spoke to another friend who was beside himself with excitement at this extraordinary pursuit of knowledge, and the incredibly feat that we – mere blips in the great expanse of the universe – have landed Curiosity on Mars.

There are the heartbreaking questions that come alongside the expansion of human understanding, that come with doing things that have never been done before just to see if we can… those heartbreaking questions are “Why is it more important to explore a dusty, red planet that has taken eight years and two and a half billion dollarsto reach; than to feed the 25000 people who die every day from poverty”. Don’t get me wrong, these questions apply to many things our governments decide to invest money in – these questions apply to Australia’s costly and ineffective detention system, they apply to the broken submarine fleet that Australia bought – but space travel is on such a scale, and requires such enormous injections of funding that the question sits uneasily at the forefront of our minds.

Is our desire to understand “what’s out there” more important to the lives of those who are very much living right here… to whom, had they the time or opportunity to witness it, travel to Mars might legitimately seem more like a perverse “fuck you” than a progression of the human species?

I’m very conflicted.  I’m currently addicted to Dr Who (don’t laugh, I cried in the shower the other morning because I’d dreamt Dr Who was going to come and fix climate change and then I woke up and there was no blue police box at my door) because he travels through space and time to lay down before the universe the immense possibilities that are beyond our normal, everyday comprehension. It’s inspiring and exciting and hopeful.

I think space exploration is important. I’m not a science geek so this is a very non-scientific understanding of the way in which our brains work – but I tend to think that humans as a species operate within boxes. Pretend boxes that define the scope of everything we can imagine that could happen – our visioning is limited by the parameters of the boxes we create. We are somewhat akin to the tigers in circuses who will continue to pace in a 4m x 2m loop even when they are removed from their 4m x 2m cage and could explore and be free; because they have been trained not to see further than the box that they know.

Space exploration explodes the parameter of that “box” and creates possibilities that were previously inconceivable. This is an immensely valuable phenomenon and has such widespread ramifications if the brightest scientific and mathematical minds in the world are constantly pushing and expanding our comprehension – its value transcends the specific project at hand.

Space exploration provides inspiration. It tells us that things are possible that we cannot even imagine yet – that gives us hope, it gives us drive, and tells the world that what is now is not forever and we can do better. That is valuable.

Space exploration gives us perspective. It is awe-inspiring and it is humbling. It shows us that whilst on earth we see ourselves as the king of the food chain, with the right to pump noxious gases into our atmosphere, dig up our earth and exploit the majority of our people – we are TINY and so insignificant when it comes to the great expanse of the universe that has existed for so much longer than we have, and will continue to exist for so long after we inevitably destroy ourselves and our beautiful planet. Space exploration is a reminder that we are an arrogant and often extraordinarily stupid species – and we should do better.

Robert Heinlein makes an interesting point: “The second best thing about space travel is that the distances involved make war very difficult, usually impractical, and almost always unnecessary. This is probably a loss for most people, since war is our race’s most popular diversion, one which gives purpose and color to dull and stupid lives. But it is a great boon to the intelligent man who fights only when he must—never for sport.”

One response to “Ethics of (space) Exploration

  1. It’s easy to see why people make comparisons when the total numbers are reported. But as you alluded to and didn’t quite follow up, focusing on this particular spending is failing to see the whole picture. “Such enormous injections of funding” really aren’t that big – Curiosity cost 1.66 times the expense of developing Victoria’s Myki train-ticketing system. BHP made $22 billion profit last financial year. Spending on the expansion of human knowledge should always be supported, concurrently with our more practical needs. Let’s divert other, much less admirable, spending.


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