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Space Exploration: The Smartest Investment?

Pretend that instead of being responsible for your household budget, which may include paying for rent or a mortgage, transportation, maybe schooling costs, groceries, healthcare, vacations, and so on, you are in charge of a much larger budget that covers a wide range of services for millions of people, such as maintaining an army and protecting the borders. To put it another way, assume you're in charge of the union/federal budget of a nation. Now consider how much of that money you want to devote to space exploration and why. Whether we like it or not, the most probable fate of this great blue planet we call home is absorption by the Sun in the next 7.5 billion years. But with the unintended catalyst of human intervention, the end inches nearer and nearer.

Our Earth is being sucked dry of the most essential resources that our race depends on. For example, if we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate, it is generally estimated that all our fossil fuels will be depleted by 2060. With this in mind, the most sensible idea would be to explore this vast black void that fills the space around us. All of the stars, planets, and galaxies visible today account for only 4% of the universe, and we never know when we'll strike gold. The sooner we start, the better!

The first point I want to make has to do with our collective energy needs. Humanity as a race is ranked at roughly level 0.75 on the Kardashev Scale, a technique of rating civilisations based on their energy use. We've changed the world by building massive structures; mining and stripping mountains; removing rainforests; and draining marshes. We've made rivers and lakes, as well as altered the atmosphere's composition and temperature. If progress continues, and we, though highly unlikely, don’t make our Earth uninhabitable, we will become a full Type 1 civilisation in a couple of hundred years—meaning we will, as a civilisation, be able to harness all the resources of our planet to its fullest potential. Any Type 1 society will inevitably look outside their home planet, as we will most likely remain true to our nature-curious, competitive, greedy, and expansionist. As technological demands rise and the Earth's natural resources deplete, we must consider alternative energy sources, and what better place to start that search than space? Transitioning to a Type 2 civilization—attempting to change and harvest other planets and cosmic bodies for energy—is the next logical step. This could begin with space outposts, progress to infrastructure and industry near our home planet, colonisation, and finally terraforming other planets by altering their atmosphere, rotation, or shape. But this, of course, is a process that could quite easily take aeons, but the sooner we start, the faster we can achieve this optimistic end goal.

If you stared up at the night sky, you might think that it would be there forever. Stars are born and die again in an eternal cycle. However, this is not the case. How many stars do you think are born each year in the Milky Way, which is 200,000 light-years across and contains 100 to 400 billion stars? Thousands? Millions? No, three is the answer. Three new stars per year. 95% of all stars that will ever exist in the universe have now been born, and we are nearing the end of the star formation epoch. As the production of new stars slows, we are at the beginning of the end of the universe as we know it. But what's more, is that the universe is actually racing away from us. The Milky Way is not alone—together with the Andromeda Galaxy and more than fifty dwarf galaxies, it forms the Local Group, a region of space almost 10 million light-years in diameter. Hundreds of galaxy groups like this make up the Laniakea Supercluster, which itself is only a myriad of superclusters. The current observable universe is made up of roughly two trillion galaxies in total. Unfortunately, even if we could travel at the speed of light, approximately 94% of the galaxies we can see are simply unreachable to us indefinitely. Allow this figure to sink in for a moment...

The very idea that we have a limit and that there is so much of the universe that we will never be able to touch is terrifying. The expansion of our universe is accelerated by dark matter, implying that a cosmological horizon exists around us. Everything beyond it is travelling faster, relative to us, than the speed of light. As a result, everything beyond the horizon is forever out of reach. However, every second light reaches us from trillions of galaxies that have passed the horizon and were much closer to us when the light was emitted; thus, what we see with our eyes is essentially like looking back in time. Every second, 60,000 stars pass over the horizon. Today, the Local Group is most likely the largest structure we will ever be a part of. So, with large amounts of funding, we may make the best effort to boost the development of space exploration programmes in big countries, to explore what remains of our observable universe before it all slips right out of our hands into the impenetrable fog that lies beyond that horizon.

One may argue that space exploration is merely for scientific development and substantial advancement in research. But it is important to understand that what space keeps hidden from us may well be the key to such unbelievable and pivotal discoveries that could potentially extend our time here in this world. From the discovery of new infinite energy resources for advancements to new medicinal discoveries that may as well cure any and every disease humans are to face. All this and so much more is within hand's reach as long as space exploration programmes continue to receive sufficient funding from big countries.

If a country were to not spend billions on the future, what would they spend it on? The past? Certainly not. Though saving our current home planet may be a priority—to somehow try and hold on to what remains of Earth—the downsizing of space exploration expenditure is definitely not justified, as humans will eventually render our big blue planet uninhabitable. The search for a new alternative home is inevitable, so the sooner we start, the better. Elon Musk, best known as the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and the man who lowered the price of Bitcoin by 3.6% with a single tweet, has been working on building permanent settlements on neighbouring planets such as Mars. His aim for SpaceX remains unchanged: to establish a permanent human presence on Mars by using its Starship rockets to transport people to and from the red planet.

"We don't want to be one of those single-planet species, we want to be a multi-planet species." - Elon Musk

But how does all of this translate into space exploration being worth millions of taxpayers' money when there are other competing and vital goals for a finite quantity of public money? According to GPO budget data, the US budget for 2007 was around $2.784 trillion, with NASA receiving little more than $16 billion. This indicates that NASA's overall spending accounts for just over half of 1% of the total US budget. Social programmes, on the other hand, receive over 98 times the amount of money spent on NASA. Another way to think about it is that a 1% cut in government social expenditures could just about double NASA's budget in any given year. If anything, funding for space exploration should be expanded. Given that trillions of dollars are squandered on non-essential government departments, I dwarf any claim that billions spent on space exploration are unjustifiable.

In conclusion, space exploration is an investment that will pay off handsomely. It's not just about what we learn about ourselves in space or how to be a better steward of our wonderful planet. It's about how we live together on this planet and what kind of future we want for our children and ourselves. Space exploration is the only means by which we can improve our lives here on Earth, as well as provide hope and motivation for children to grow up, complete their studies, and accept the challenges that await them in order to make our planet a better place. Whatever we spend on space exploration is a bargain, and we will be repaid many times over in terms of both quantity and quality.

From my perspective, we are getting this value at a bargain, as if we were all going to a dollar store for an end-of-the-year sale.

1 Comment

Venky Balakrishnan
Venky Balakrishnan
Nov 07, 2021

Nice analysis and very informative. Keep up the good work 🙂

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