Why Explore Space/the Universe?

Fraser Cain over at Universe Today sent out a question to the Astronomy/Astrophysics/Space communication community today. And he asks:

Why should we spend our time/money/resources on exploring space when there are so many problems here on Earth?

This is something that, for better or worse, I had a knee-jerk reaction to. Here’s what I wrote back to him:

This is like asking why we should spend money on making our city better when there are so many problems here in our own homes. Or why we should spend money on understanding our whole world when there are so many problems here in our own country. Space is something that we are not only a part of, but that encompasses and affects all of us. Learning about the grandest scales of our lives — about the things that are larger than us and will go on relatively unaffected by whatever we do — that has value! And it might not have a value that I can put a price tag on, but in terms of unifying everyone, from people in my city to people in a foreign country to people or intelligences on other planets or in other galaxies, space exploration is something that is the great equalizer. And the knowledge, beauty, and understanding that we get from it is something that one person, group, or nation doesn’t get to keep to itself; what we learn about the Universe can be, should be, and if we do our jobs right, will be equally available to everyone, everywhere. This is where our entire world came from, and this is the abyss our entire world will eventually return to. And learning about that, exploring that, and gaining even a small understanding of that, has the ability to give us a perspective that we can never gain just by looking insularly around our little blue rock.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Is this valuable, or am I just being completely naive and idealistic in my views of the value that understanding the world and Universe around us can bring? Whatever you think, you can read what the other responders had to say here.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris C
    April 11, 2008

    I agree with your response 100%, you hit the nail on the head – the idea of science as The Universal Human Project, encompassing us all, too big for any one of us to understand it all, beyond temporary notions of borders or states.

    Someone really ought to buy this guy a Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman book, one of the greats who had this wonderful talent for espousing the majesty and awe of science.

    But on the flip side, I’m not sure such arguments mean as much to some people as they do others, when in discussions when this question has come up I have often needed to add in the ‘materialistic argument’, that pure science research is done without any particular monetary, social, political goal in mind – but that from it comes innovation that couldn’t be foreseen, case in point, this ‘web’ that we’re using (and I make my living from) is an off-shoot of problem solving the need to share documents at CERN. And just last week I read that the VAST quantities of data that will need to be processed for the LHC have spawned a new super-network there. I think sometimes arguments like these can be very powerful in showing those without a natural intellectual curiosity the value of having one!

    Well that, and the Sun’s eventual running out of fuel… :o)

  2. #2 ethan
    April 11, 2008

    Chris, is your argument that pushing yourself is how you learn new things and gain new skills? Because that’s so simple and obvious that it’s profound! And really that’s what “intellectual activity” is, challenging yourself for the sake of learning. Nice argument!

  3. #3 Clement
    April 11, 2008

    I totally agree with you. It seems to me that we human beings are naturally “pushed” towards the unknown. What motivates us to learn about what surrounds us would be, of course, to try and make our lives better (for example developping the H-Bomb was one of the greatest achievements of science…definitely helped millions of people), but also pure and simple curiosity, because we feel the need to know more about ourselves and the world we live in.
    By the way, nice blog!

  4. #4 Brian
    April 14, 2008

    Ethan, I agree with your response, but it’s a lofty and idealistic argument that won’t appeal to everyone. For example, my wife falls into the school of thought that space exploration is a waste of precious resources that are needed to fix more pressing problems here on Earth. To address that kind of argument, you must expand your response on why humans should explore space to include the practical benefits. I don’t have the numbers handy, but there are all kinds of studies showing how much space exploration has helped the U.S. GDP by stimulating high tech job growth and spurring technological spinoffs in private industry. Many people mistakenly think that NASA consumes a large fraction of the U.S. discretionary budget, when it is only a mere 0.6%. In fact, the return to the U.S. economy from this rather modest investment makes space exploration the single biggest “bang for your buck” program in government and is one of the very few government programs that actually turns a profit. There is also a strong national security argument in favor of space exploration since a nation with the capability to lead in space is also in a position to defend itself since it will have the domestic expertise in key areas of science and engineering. Another compelling, although more abstract, argument is the need for humanity to protect itself from extinction due to either asteroid impact or another catastrophe (natural or manmade) on Earth. We must mitigate this threat by studying near Earth asteroids, establishing a permanent human presence off Earth, and use space as a platform for studying the Earth itself. In fact, that last item might be the most persuasive reason for space activities from a practical standpoint. It is the best way to study our planet’s fragile environment and mitigate natural disasters to protect lives and property.

  5. #5 ethan
    April 14, 2008

    The practical arguments as to why exploration of space is worthwhile certainly hold a lot of water! But by that argument, the stuff that I do — looking for dark matter, trying to figure out dark energy, galaxy formation, the fate and birth and evolution of the Universe, etc. — is completely worthless. I agree that understanding the Universe helps us to understand our place/role in the Universe, but is there then a practical argument for understanding the stuff that is unrelated to us?

  6. #6 Brian
    April 14, 2008

    You’re treading on philosophical ground. I think your question is really more about the value of basic research (of any kind, not just space) compared to applied science with more near-term, tangible benefit to society. I still think the spin-off and economic arguments hold, albeit in a longer-term timeframe. There’s also the dimension of how a scientifically literate culture is better-equipped to deal with the problems of the world – technical or social.

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