Of the $3.9 trillion projected for federal spending in fiscal year 2015, a mere $17.5 billion — less than one percent — would be invested in the national space program. To put it in perspective, we spent nearly ten times as much money on the Iraq/Afghanistan war as we have on NASA throughout it’s entire history. As a nation and as a worldwide community, to paraphrase “Interstellar,” we need to be less concerned with our place in the dirt and be more concerned with our place in the stars.
The tendency for our nation to be more concerned with starting wars and monitoring its citizens’ text messages than it is about promoting the sciences is hardly a new concept. But now more than ever it seems NASA is being increasingly pushed to the side by both our nation’s leaders and its citizens — and we aren’t alone.
Perhaps that is why Dutch visionary Bas Lansdorp has created a program to do the unprecedented: colonize Mars. The ‘Mars One’ mission plans to send a highly selective group of people on a one-way mission to colonize the Red Planet. The goal of the mission is to better understand the universe that we are all a part of.
Some argue that spending money on a mission to Mars is a futile and unproductive use of resources. Yet the funding for the Mars One mission is expected to come largely from profits derived from a reality television series that will follow the participants’ journey during the mission. So before we go pointing fingers at the Mars One mission for causing world hunger, let’s remember that these profits would simply go to whatever other television series would replace the Mars One reality program. Do we really believe that funding the producers of “Honey Boo Boo” is a better allocation of our resources than pushing the limits of human innovation and exploration?
Space exploration isn’t short-sighted — in fact, it’s the exact opposite. It provides potential solutions to one of the Earth’s most imminent and overlooked dangers: an ever-increasing population that subsists upon an ever-decreasing number of resources. We can already see the results of overpopulation, as hunger and disease threaten millions across the globe. A reallocation of resources can only be effective if we grow our resources at the same rate that we grow our population — a rate that is quickly becoming unsustainable. Looking for habitable landscapes beyond our own world solves this problem.
I’m not arguing that we should stop trying to solve our problems here on earth. On the contrary — I believe our investment in the sciences will help us to solve these problems. We have enjoyed a great number of technological advances thanks to NASA’s efforts — including the invention of things like water filters, insulin pumps and other devices that work to improve quality of life here on earth. As Steven Hawking put it, “There will be those who argue that it would be better to spend our money solving the problems of this planet like climate change and pollution … but we can do that and still spare a quarter of a percent of world GDP for space. Isn’t our future worth a quarter of a percent?”
Some may say it’s crazy to try to colonize an alien planet. I say it’s naïve of us to believe that we can sustain an exponentially growing population with a finite set of resources. We don’t need to abandon our efforts at home to look toward the horizon — we just need to adjust our priorities.