Humans have always been explorers. Even when our population was still numbered in the millions rather than billions, the great civilizations of old traveled to the edges of the known world to find out what lay beyond. Today mankind conquered almost every space on Earth. And we discovered that a planet that once seemed incredibly vast only has limited space and resources. In his best-selling book Cosmos, the great astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote:
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”
– Carl Sagan in Cosmos
It was his opinion that the exploration of space is a natural consequence of humanity’s inherent thirst for probing the unknown. Many of the great minds of the past and present share this opinion. Some even go further and claim that venturing into space is crucial for the survival of humanity. Among them was the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who wrote:
“I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster. I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space. We need to inspire the next generation to become engaged in space and in science in general, to ask questions: What will we find when we go to space? Is there alien life, or are we alone? What will a sunset on Mars look like?”
– Stephen Hawking in How to Make a Starship by Julian Guthrie
To many, these grand visions seem far-fetched and remote. After all, they don’t really apply to our daily life but concern all of humanity and its future. So why do we send humans into space?
Indeed, the exploration of space and its resources is at the center of the answer to this question. The scientific interest in understanding our universe and its evolution, right up to the point where humans came to exist, is one aspect of it. But there’s also the more practical aspects that do apply to our daily life—today and in the future.
Much of our life is dominated by technologies enabled by spaceflight. GPS, weather forecasts, satellite telephones, Google Maps—all these services would be unthinkable without satellites orbiting our planet. But, you may say, these satellites are robotic, they don’t need humans to function. That is true. But many other current and future activities cannot be performed by robots alone.
Astronauts on the International Space Station perform research that not only helps us to further explore outer space but also has applications back on Earth. In fact, many space agencies favor research that has applications on Earth when they select new experiments for funding. It’s a wide-ranging field, including biology, medicine, materials science, and many more. Oftentimes space is the only place where this research can be performed, for example because it requires prolonged periods of weightlessness.
In the future, activities requiring humans in space will only expand. Asteroid mining, for instance, can be a great source of materials that are rare or hardly accessible on Earth. Such as the rare-earth metals powering the electronic device you’re reading this post on. Every day, large swathes of our planet are destroyed to mine these metals. Asteroids could supply our demand for centuries to come without environmental disaster. And that’s just one of many examples.
Over the years, space research has created many technologies that have entered our daily life. NASA lists almost 2,000 spinoffs that have found their way into commercial products in areas such as transportation, health and medicine, information technology, public safety, and others. Last, but not least, it is worth to mention that while only few astronauts go into space, tens of thousands of people worldwide have secure jobs because of the space industry.
Photo credit: NASA