It’s not unethical to spend billions on space exploration

First published on the punch 

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 include: Why is it more important to explore a dusty, red planet that has taken eight years and two and a half billion dollars to 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 a considerable about 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?

It’s important not to blow the amount of money spent on space exploration out of proportion. Money is money, but as I found out today apparently US consumers spend more on pizza than NASA does annually, which is both indicative of the fact that the US is the fattest country in the world, and that NASA’s budget is hardly excessive.

But at the end of the day that does not really solve the conundrum, people will persist to say that money is money and why should any be blasted into outer space when people are suffering on Earth?

To make a crude analogy – I think the way we work individually and as a species is akin to the way a caged tiger understands its circumstance. Everyone has heard the story of the tiger locked up for its entire life and so finally when the cage is removed from around him, he continues to walk the same 4m forward, 4m backwards that he paced every day when he was behind bars. He has no comprehension of the world that exists beyond his cage.  Our comprehension of the world and possibilities is similarly shaped by the parameters of the ‘boxes’ we create.

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.

It’s not one or the other. We need to do more to alleviate the gross wealth disparities on Earth, and there is an onus on wealthy countries to distribute their money more effectively and generously. But this does not negate the value of expanding human knowledge and multiplying the possibilities we can conceive of.

As Robert Heinlein says: “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.”

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