Whenever I come back to science, I find that all roads lead me to the stars. Why? Astronomy is but one area of science–and some would call it the least relevant of the sciences to our daily lives. For how can we be effected by what is literally millions of miles away (beautiful picture at right illustrating the possible commonality of planets in our galaxy courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesser)? Some pragmatists even protest that it is irresponsible to think about outer space when the crises that threaten our species are going on right here at home.
My answer would be that this argument against spending on space exploration is in fact precisely why we need it. So many of the issues of our time are about resources–where are we going to get energy in a way that won’t destroy our planet? How can the Earth feed all of our people? Under what circumstances is it ethical to make new people when we can’t answer those questions?
The fundamental reality we’re beginning to face is that the Earth is finite. We don’t know exactly how many people it can support–but the fact is that there are four times as many people living on our planet now as there were 100 years ago. And with our increasingly complex societies posing all new logistical and psychological risks, we may not have much time to figure it out before Mother Nature starts keeping us in check the way she did in the pre-technological era–by killing people off faster than they can reproduce.
This issue has been near to my heart lately for a number of reasons. On one hand, there is the science–even biological studies keep attracting me to other worlds, to the question of what they’re like, how we get there, of how many Earth analogues may exist in the Milky Way.
At the same time, in my own country, one of our nation’s largest religious groups is up in arms at our President for violating their religious freedom–by requiring them to include birth control among the health benefits they cover for their employees.
The American Catholic bishops are so outraged by this requirement to cover pregnancy prevention–which is viewed as a grave sin in the Catholic religion–that they’ve launched a “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign with the slogan “Help Save Our Religious Freedom” (the image at left is a screencap from their website)–all because they see artificial pregnancy prevention as a grave violation of God’s will.
This story is in stark contrast to another recent American political flap–the revelation that our military receives so much more funding than our space program that our Department of Defense recently donated to NASA two telescopes, both better than the Hubble, which they just happened to have lying around unused. The best part? It’s going to take NASA eight years to scrape together enough savings to actually put these things into orbit on NASA’s current meager budget.
This says something about our priorities, doesn’t it? While major cultural forces protest that birth control is a terrible sin they shouldn’t be forced to enable, our space exploration agency receives such a tiny fraction of our nation’s budget that it will take them nearly a decade to make use of the two incredibly expensive and powerful pieces of equipment that our Department of War just happened to have lying around and “didn’t have use for anymore.”
I really worry about the future of our species.
And that’s why I’m going to devote an upcoming series of entries to the problems of Earth–and how space exploration may be able to help solve them.