I'll preface this piece by saying that I am all for space exploration. Space is my industry, my bread and butter. I want to see the market grow and flourish. I want space companies to be productive, hire lots of workers and make gobs of money. I want them to be creative and innovative and come up with wonderful technologies that will allow humankind to return to the moon and colonize it, and then go on to Mars... and settle it. I want government agencies such as NASA, Russia's Rosaviakosmos and ESA (European Space Agency) to lead the way whenever possible or provide incentives to private industry to do the pioneering and heavy-lifting whenever it's not.
I want humanity to be a multi-planet civilization, and eventually, long after I'm gone, a multi-star one. It's still hard to conceive of ever being able to leave our quadrant of the Milky Way. But if we humans succeed in finding water somewhere other than Earth and taking the initial steps of moving away from our home planet, then perhaps it's only a matter of time before we visit another of the roughly 200 billion solar systems within our galaxy, another quadrant and ultimately another of the estimated 200 billion galaxies in our universe. Forget the possible "other" universes.
I agree with Stephen Hawking; we "must continue to go into space for humanity." In a talk that he recently gave at the California Institute of Technology, the acclaimed British theoretical physicist and cosmologist said, "I don't think we will survive another thousand years without escaping our fragile planet." In a 2011 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Mr. Hawking noted, "Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."
The central point behind Mr. Hawking's dire warnings is to argue against government (notably NASA) cutbacks in spending for space exploration programs. Other world-famous scientists like American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have also strongly advocated for much more -- rather than less -- public funding for space exploration. It makes sense. It's their field.
Sadly, the argument goes, "We've done such a crappy job of caring for our planet that we really do need to look for another place to live."
I suppose that's what bugs me about Mr. Hawking's call for more public money for space exploration. It's the rationale. If we're going advocate for more government spending on space, then for God's sake let's come up with a better argument. Otherwise, why not take the money we would use for colonizing another planet and invest it in cleaning up the mess we've made on Earth?
On March 7, 2007, I attended a breakfast lecture in Washington, D.C., in which Neil Armstrong was the guest speaker. Mr. Armstrong was then 81 years old but still instantly recognizable. He spoke for about half an hour on things such as the difficulty of predicting the future of the aerospace industry, the political culture of Washington and the history and vision of flight. He spoke in a very light-hearted, humorous and philosophical manner. He struck me as shy and humble. A genuinely nice guy. He quoted Mark Twain often.
The words that I remember most clearly had to do with humankind's apparent desire to explore and become masters of the universe, and the unfortunate irony that we were seeking to do so when we had clearly not mastered our own planet.
After his talk Mr. Armstrong fielded a number of questions. I was the second to ask a question. I stood up, introduced myself and asked him, "Mr. Armstrong, what do you think we can do on the moon that is worthwhile, practical and could benefit most of the people on Earth?" He thought about it for a few seconds and responded by noting the possibilities for prospecting and mining for resources that could be useful. I took it that he was suggesting new energy resources that could perhaps make us less dependent on oil or could help create or fuel new technologies and applications. He said that he thought it was a good idea to return to the moon, and that he hoped we would. He conveyed a feeling that he had been disappointed that NASA had given up on the moon so soon after the Apollo era.
Honestly, I wasn't crazy about the answer, first because of the prohibitively expensive cost of hauling back most anything mined back to Earth, but mainly because we don't lack energy. What we lack is the will to use the energy we have well or more fully.
Afterward, I did get a chance to shake Mr. Armstrong's hand and thank him. I told him that I agreed with his sentiments about hardly having mastered our own planet, and that that was what inspired my question to him. I suggested that we needed to tie any program to return to the moon or go to Mars with some concrete vision of how that could truly help address the problems of the majority of the people on Earth. He smiled, and he nodded.