20120409

Why space travel matters

Bruce McCandless floats free in space

About forty years ago, humans took the first stroll through our closest neighborhood, the low Earth orbit. About thirty years ago, we set foot on our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon. Since then, we became ever-present in Earth's orbit, with space stations inhabited for years in a row, and countless man-made satellites circling around our pale blue dot. The International Space Station was not abandoned for one single day since Nov 2 2000! This is one of the greatest achievements of human intelligence, capability and technical prowess, and one we should all be extremely proud of. But, inspiring and mind-blowing as it is, we have to admit that it is also, in a way, outgrown. Think about it: we have been doing this - traveling to-and-fro the orbit - for the last forty years! I won't say we should stop doing it; on the contrary, the time has come to reach further out.

Why in the name of Darwin should we do this, you might ask. Well, my initial response would be - why the hell not? Now, of course, this answer is nowhere near satisfactory, but it's not supposed to be, since it is completely subjective (though I think it is also completely sane and reasonable). The more objective one would be something along the next lines: think of all the things we would learn from visiting other planets, let alone other stars! We don't have to go too far out in the beginning; we are not capable of doing it yet, anyhow. But we are capable of going to, say, Mars (I won't even mention the fact that we might practically at this exact moment go and build a base on the Moon, if not for the general greed and stupendous love for money of those who hold power). Even easier (and more logical, too) would be to send our fellow earthlings to some asteroid(s), perhaps Ceres or Vesta. There is much to think about when talking about something like this, for example, how to even get to an asteroid, or what to do when you get there? How to keep orbit around a body with such a small gravitational force? How to interact with the asteroid, if you don't even know its composition? I imagine breaking one in half while you're on it is not the best way to spend your holidays in space. But these are the questions we are able to answer and challenges we are able to tackle. And by visiting an asteroid we would learn so, so much: for example, how to eventually reach Mars (and further); or, how the solar system formed and what it looked like in its youth; or, how to deflect the evil asteroids that shoot for Earth. Who knows, we might even find out if the speculations about bacteria reaching Earth via some interstellar wanderer have any solid background.

And, of course, there is always Stephen Hawking's fear of human race destroying itself before it manages to leave this place. And we can all agree how bad that would be. Now, I don't think this is as likely to happen as some people claim, but we do have to consider it as a possibility. Don't keep all your eggs in the same basket, I say. Especially when so many people claim ownership over different eggs and even parts of the basket. Silly, silly people, but powerful and hard to ignore, too.

Well, anyway. I would like to hear some other opinions on why space travel matters, or matters not, so feel free to leave a comment below. Share your thoughts - it's fun and educational! :)

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