“We should be spending this money here on Earth,” we often hear people say when space programs and private investment are discussed. It’s such a widespread sentiment that even big names in science fiction tend to share it (albeit reluctantly).
The Truth About The Humanitarian Argument
Look, I get it. You could feed X number of starving children, put roofs over Y number of homeless people, or spend it on climate change solutions to prevent extinction, but that’s the short game. In the long run, investing in space not only yields technologies that have helped people immensely, but it is another important bulwark against extinction.
First, let’s look at the lifesaving history of space technology here on the Third Rock. As the article I linked above points out, space exploration technologies have “led to the development of better suits for firefighters, improvements to heart monitors, solar panels, cordless tools, improved dialysis treatment methods, CAT scan technology and so much more.” Even mundane things, like sunglasses, have been improved.
The truth is that spending space dollars down here in the atmosphere directly on people would have saved fewer lives and led to far fewer life improvements than the technologies we gained reaching for the stars.
On top of that, we need to consider that our understanding of this planet has vastly increased due to our limited presence in space. We know much more about our planet’s atmosphere, and even what to expect in terms of weather next week. Many, many vast human problems are better understood and solved with space tools.
In other words, spending it in space ultimately is spending it on the needs of humans here.
Now, Let’s Look At The Really Long Game
While it requires a little bit of patience to enjoy the on-planet benefits of space technology, it requires much more patience to see the full benefits. Not only is it something we probably won’t fully realize within our own lifetimes, but by the time it fully pays off, our countries, cultures, religions, and what it means to be human may have all gone by the wayside. This is the really, really long game, but it’s still important.
Here’s the thing: this planet will not support life forever, and it’s definitely not going to support human life forever. First off, there’s the risk of Earth running into a comet or asteroid that wipes us all out. That could happen in decades, or it could happen in a million years. There are many more risks like that one, including volcanic super-eruptions, gamma ray bursts from space, war, and climate change.
Even if earth-bound humanity does somehow survive all of those threats for a billion years (unlikely), eventually our sun will turn on us. First, it will grow in output until our planet is no longer habitable. Then, it will expand and explode, directly cooking what’s left of any life on the planet and destroying it.
No amount of spending on social welfare, aid for the poor, or wealth redistribution will have any real effect on our sun’s long-term prognosis. We are going to have to do something so our descendants can avoid these gruesome fates that eventually await them.
The Empathy Issue
This requires a lot of foresight and a fairly open mind, though. We seem to have enough trouble caring about humans from 100 years in the future without considering the far future.
The beings who would be saved from extinction won’t have that much in common with us. In a thousand years, the political map will have long since shifted. Languages will all be different. Technology will (hopefully) be so advanced that we’d think it’s magic were we to encounter it today.
If we were to encounter our descendants from 1 million years from now, we would probably not recognize them as human. Looking a million years back, we can already say the same. Beings we even consider to be of our own species have been around for less than half that time, with what came before being “cave men” or more ape-like than human. Even 50,000 years ago, behavior was barely becoming something that resembled modern people. Humans didn’t even farm until around 10,000 years ago.
If nothing else, the fact that rolled toilet paper was invented in the 19th century should drive the point home.
If we still have descendants in a billion years, the differences would probably be unimaginable. Keep in mind that the only living thing we know of to have lived on land a billion years ago was a type of fungus, with plants and animals coming later. They will likely be as different from us as we are from fungus, and we’d better hope they don’t have their version of Tinactin on them should we encounter them by time travel.
To really empathize with these future post-humans, we have to try to look at what we’ve gained since the time of land fungus: consciousness.
This might not bother everyone, but try to imagine a day in the future when the last conscious and intelligent life form on our planet dies. Whether it’s from an asteroid impact or that the sun is cooking everything and the last human-ish being suffocates in some underground bunker, that thought should bug you. It makes everything we work toward making society better, every effort every person has ever made — suddenly without future.
The Bottom Line
If we want to have a legacy at all, we need to go to space and give future humans and their descendants a fighting chance. Getting the benefit of space technologies does that all alone, but putting some of our eggs in other baskets vastly increases the odds.
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