01/27/2012 08:03 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

What is the Use of Space Exploration?

We live in a world with no shortage of problems. Our planet's health is rapidly declining while our national debt steadily rises. Poverty and unemployment plague the world, and war is, of course, an ever-present threat. With all of these problems, why would we even put space exploration on our to-do list? And couldn't that money be put towards more practical and present causes -- education, defense, the environment? Well, in our national budget that money is put to other uses, and there's no denying that there's truth to these arguments. But using this logic, when will be the right time to explore the cosmos? When there are no other problems left to fix? When it's too late to utilize any of the applications of space exploration, such as new resources or habitations? When we finally realize that we are in the infancy of this field's development -- that we'll have to work for a while without seeing immediate results? Along with all of the arguments against space travel, there are also arguments that prove that exploring space is not only a worthwhile and practical endeavor, but a necessary one, and a journey we must continue to embark on before we miss the opportunity.

Honestly, I'm reluctant to suggest some of the "practical" applications of space exploration. To me, the cosmos have always been the "something bigger," the "higher being," if you will. They are beautiful in their mystery, the pureness that comes from being ultimately so untouched by human hands. But I'm also realistic. And I know that we've already somewhat ruined what we have. Our home planet is not in good shape. The chances of reversing global warming are close to nothing, and at the rate we are going, it's hard to imagine that we will even slow down the effects much. A fact that always gets me is that even if we completely halted all greenhouse gas emissions, it would take over a thousand years for some of the environmental impacts, such as the sea level, to return to normal. It would be fair to say that it's time to start thinking of some alternative solutions, because it will be hard to cut our impact even close to that, especially with an increasingly overpopulated planet.

There are two different fields that come into play here -- resources and habitation. It's important to keep in mind here that we don't even know the extent of the resources that could be found in space. What if there's a fuel alternative we know nothing about? It's essential to remember that a lot of our knowledge is limited to our own earthly perceptions. Additionally, many technological advances have been made in the process of preparing for and executing space exploration. The bottom line is that space exploration truly does lead not only to practical applications, but to progress as well. And progress is the point that I find most important in this whole argument.

I recently read Ayn Rand's book, The Fountainhead. Though many of its assertions were a bit too radical for my taste, there's a quote that kept popping into my mind as I brainstormed for this article. It is when Howard Roark says during the opening of his courtroom speech,

"Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had lifted darkness off the earth. Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build. He was considered a transgressor who ventured into forbidden territory. But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world."

Oftentimes, when new fields or technology are in these early stages they are unpopular -- deemed useless, or even evil. The pioneers rarely reap the benefits. Just think of our ancestors, crossing the Atlantic Ocean just to die of disease and hunger, or expanding westward only to perish along the way. But as they perished, they paved the way for future generations. We are the pioneers of space. We will probably not reap the full benefits of space exploration. And though I am not sure this is what Ayn Rand meant, I think we must play our role in history nonetheless, for the good of mankind.

These pioneers weren't totally selfless though, and we do not need to think of space as a purely self-sacrificial expedition. Along with pursuing new horizons for practical or progressive means, our ancestors moved forward to satisfy their own spirit. As humans, we have an urge to explore, develop, and grow. It's part of what has made us such a successful species! And in an age with so many problems, maybe the hope that comes with pushing our boundaries and venturing into the unknown is exactly what we need for our diminishing morale. This hope could unite us, as humans and countries. If executed in the right way (with an attitude of exploration, not colonization) in mind, the cosmos could become the common ground and cause that helps unite us on Earth as well.

Throughout my childhood social studies classes, I was told that we study history so that we can learn from our mistakes and successes. To not pursue space exploration would be to spit in the face of this lesson. What have we learned from history but the benefits of pushing boundaries and pursuing new frontiers? For the sake of human spirit, history, and our own suffering planet Earth we must continue to move forward, and provide NASA with the funding it needs.