I’m going to write something shocking here, and I want to prepare you for it first. Remember that this comes from a total sci-fi geek; I have, at various times in my life, owned not only a toy phaser, but a tricorder and communicator to boot. I have seen every episode of Star Trek ever made (yes, really). I can have an informed discussion about the relative merits of visions of the future embodied by the Foundation series, the Culture, or the Hegemony of Man. I love this stuff.
Yet any way I approach it, the conclusion seems inevitable: manned spaceflight is mostly a waste of resources, and we should stop doing it.
Between NASA’s announcement of water on Mars, the release of The Martian (awesome movie, go check it out!) and Elon Musk’s incessant demands that we go nuke and colonize that same poor, undeserving planet, we’re experiencing a newfound fever pitch of exuberance about space exploration these days. That’s awesome – go exploration! Go science! Yet so many people rush right past the “exploration” part of that in their hurry to get to “so when can I board a shuttle to Europa?” that I decided a reality check was in order.
In short: exploration is great, and we should do more of it. But sending humans into space is, for the most part, a huge waste of resources done for all the wrong reasons. Here’s why.
There is little scientific merit to sending people into space
Beyond those few scientists (and associated aerospace companies) whose funding relies on NASA sending humans into space, there is very little purely scientific support for doing so. Simply put, robots can do everything humans can in space more easily, faster and cheaper.
This is such a completely obvious point that almost no one denies it – but it’s worth pointing out anyway. There is amazing science being done already by robot probes like Cassini, Curiosity and the Solar Dynamics Observatory (among many others) which is simply impossible for humans. Not only can robot probes operate for far longer and collect more data, but they also have far greater latitude in adjusting their mission agenda on the basis of new discoveries. And because politics is never far from space exploration, it’s fair to mention that catastrophic loss of a robot spacecraft does not engender anywhere near the same political heat that losing humans does.
There will not be large numbers of humans off-world anytime in the foreseeable future.
Look, we all know that new technology inevitably makes things possible that used to be impossible, so you can never say “never” to almost anything. Indeed, in the long run, all predictions about the future whatsoever are mostly void because the premises will change. So hey, sure – maybe, one day, mass migration off-world will be a thing.
But for now, it sure isn’t, and it’s not likely to be for a couple of centuries yet. The reason isn’t just technological (though it’s that, too). It’s also economics.
Just getting into outer space is extremely expensive – staying there is way, way more so. By low estimates, just keeping the lights on in the International Space Station costs $350,000 per hour – and it’s already there, and built! Even in a permanent structure on the Moon, Mars or anywhere else – which will be terrifically costly to construct, through means we don’t have yet – just generating enough water, oxygen, food, heat, pressure and radiation protection to sustain human life will remain expensive. I think this fact is probably all but immune to advances in technology – it will always cost more to support a human in space than on Earth. That being true, there needs to be a pretty compelling reason for having them up there.
This is why the most realistic vision for humans in space is more like a North Sea oil platform, or McMurdo Station in Antarctica, than anything else; incredibly remote and expensive bases where humans can be temporarily based for strictly utilitarian ends (economic or scientific), with perhaps the odd self-funded bazillionaire visitor now and then. And their inhabitants can’t stay there very long, or they’ll likely die.
What all of those bases also have in common, by the way, is the need for constant resupply. There are undoubtedly large mineral resources to be found on Mars, the asteroid belt and elsewhere, but it’s difficult to imagine a truly self-sufficient outpost in any of those places with technology even conceivable today.
Every single mass migration in the history of human civilization has been fundamentally economic in motive. I find it unlikely that the future will be different. With the big built-in costs of supporting any human off-world (let alone getting them there in the first place), it would take a curiously powerful economic impetus to convince any significant number of people that it was in their own economic self-interest to move. That human settlement in space would need to be surplus-generating in the long term, after all – otherwise, it’s a net cost.
Of course, if you go back before human civilization, you had another reason for mass migration – existential threats to the species. Which leads us to…
Elon Musk is wrong
Sorry, but someone had to say it.
Musk is only the most recent proponent of interplanetary colonization as a sort of “insurance policy” against catastrophic threats to humankind – say, a massive asteroid impact, climate change, war, etc. In the long run, the argument goes, Earth is toast. We must eventually become a multiplanetary species.
It’s true that, in about 5 billion years, our sun will eventually grow into a red giant and fry the Earth and the other inner planets in the process. (Contrary to popular belief, it probably will not go supernova – not massive enough.) Before that happens, though, we’ll almost certainly get hit multiple times with the kind of massive asteroids that strike Earth every few tens of millions of years. The latest one created the Chesapeake Bay, so you can imagine they’re not good for life on the planet. And, of course, there are lots of other reasons why massive extinction events happen too. They’ve happened at least five times since animal life appeared on Earth:
The most obvious answer to all of these arguments, though, is that they’re relying on galactic time scales. In the history of the just the Earth itself, a million years is less than a rounding error. Human ancestors have only been around for 6 million years, and the modern form of Homo sapiens are only 200,000 years old.
(Think about that! That’s insane! We went from evolving into humans to lolcats in just 200,000 years!)
This is another way of saying that planet-killing extinctions, or asteroids, are extraordinarily rare events on any human timescale. We easily can wait another 100,000 years without too much worry. Moreover, deflecting or destroying an asteroid that was on course to strike Earth is probably a much more realistic plan for saving the species than… well, anything else.
The final stand of this argument is climate change. While climate change certainly is a huge deal, it is surely many orders of magnitude easier to stop or learn to mitigate it and figure out how to live sustainably here than it is to colonize Mars (or anywhere else).
The elitism of escape fantasy
I’ve noticed that virtually all of the theorizing about how humans could escape a blighted Earth doomed by poverty, disease, climate change or war is done by people who, tacitly or not, assume they’ll be among those allowed to leave. Occasionally, this is done under the guise of pursuing the “greater good” of preserving the species, but just as often it’s justified as: “let those other idiots deal with the mess while we, the cleverer ones, get out of here.”
This is essentially the motivating ideology of Elysium, not Star Trek. It’s an unattractive and narrowly self-interested philosophy that reflects the understandable, but unavoidable, frustration with getting lots of humans to agree on how to live together. The Earth has billions of people whose poverty and lack of opportunity are the result of a complex global political and economic system and distribution of resources that allow a very tiny portion to indulge fantasies about leaving the others behind, and that’s sad. We can do much better – and we are, slowly but surely. Leaving our human bretheren who never even had a chance in the dust is not a vision I find very compelling.
Keeping things in perspective
At the end of the day, supporters of space exploration – like me – always have to point out that NASA is a total bargain. Leaving aside the truly enormous second-order benefits of the technology space exploration has spun off, everything NASA does today it accomplishes for roughly one half of one cent of every U.S. tax dollar. By contrast, fifty cents go straight to entitlement programs, eighteen to defense, and seven to interest on the federal debt.
When you start thinking about what our society actually spends real money on – like the $1 trillion dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter boondoggle – cutting space exploration as a means of saving money makes about as much sense as cutting NPR. It’s not even a rounding error.
Exploration and the human spirit
There have been many eloquent words written and said about the merit of human exploration for its own case.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…” – JFK
“To boldly go where no one has gone before…” – Captain Picard
“It’s supposed to be a challenge. That’s why they call it a shortcut. If it was easy, it would just be the way.” – Ruben, Road Trip
It’s hard to argue with any of these. Exploration of space should – must – continue, both to expand our knowledge of the universe and to inspire more people to useful lives of science and industry.
Nevertheless, space exploration is mostly the domain of governments who can fund it, which makes it also a matter of public policy. Like any policy decision, its merits must inevitably be weighed in terms of dollars spent and benefits gained. In that context, the case for sending humans into space is just… very squishy. Given that NASA’s budget will, unfortunately, probably not be doubled, tripled or otherwise in the foreseeable future, the whole of humankind’s exploration of space will largely be done on a shoestring budget for many years to come. Given those constraints of resources, robots are an obvious, and better, answer.
Is this all a total buzzkill? I don’t think so. If you really believe the Earth is too boring, or doesn’t offer the opportunities for exploration and wonder and awe that you crave – well, you clearly haven’t seen enough of it yet. We have an amazing planet here that only a very tiny minority of people will ever get to see a lot of. If you’re one of them, take advantage of it. I promise you will not be disappointed.
Buzzkill posts to come:
“Why humankind will probably also never, ever encounter aliens or leave our solar system!”
 – The human body literally disintegrates in outer space. ISS astronauts are assigned 2.5 hours of rigorous weight and aerobic exercise every single day just to stave off the atrophy of zero-G that would make them all but helpless back on Earth (or any other significant gravity environment). Astronauts’ eyesight also erodes, irrevocably, after a few months in orbit, a problem for which NASA still has no clue how to answer.