When people think about rocket ships and space exploration, they often imagine traveling across the Milky Way, landing on mysterious planets and even meeting alien life forms.
In reality, humans’ drive to get off Planet Earth has led to tremendous technological advances in our mundane daily lives — ones we use right here at home on terra firma.
I recently walked through Boston’s Logan International Airport; a NASA display reminded me that GPS navigation, anti-icing systems, memory foam and LED lights were all originally created for space travel. Other inventions NASA science has created include the pacemaker, scratch-resistant lenses and the solar panel.
These types of advancements are one of the most important reasons I am hoping our next U.S. president will try to jump-start the American space program — both privately and publicly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear any of them are talking about the issue. But they should be. As we enter the transhumanist age — the era of bionic limbs, brain implants and artificial intelligence — space exploration might once again dramatically lead us forward in discovering the most our species can become.
Already SpaceX, led by CEO Elon Musk, has announced it will be tackling an unmanned trip to Mars in 2018. The hope, of course, is that within the next 10-15 years, astronauts will be stepping foot upon the red planet, too. If indeed, humans can make it to Mars — and I’m sure we will — much new tech would have to be developed for the mission. It’s safe to say much of that tech would likely be something useful for us eventually on Earth, as well.
For example, just to even live in space for the journey — it’ll take approximately six months to travel one-way to Mars — new ways of sleeping, recycling breathable air and preserving foods and drink would likely have to be developed.
Furthermore, the technology to withstand massive dust storms, freezing temperatures and a hostile environment on Mars would require new space suits and maybe even totally new materials. Innovation like this will benefit everyone — even if we don’t know all the uses yet for such radical tech.
Of course, there are other reasons for prompting a renewed and significantly larger space program in America. One of the fundamental goals of my own presidential campaign has been warning the world of the incredible threat of existential risk.
The Atlantic recently ran a story by Robinson Meyer that read:
At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident. The risk of human extinction due to climate change — or an accidental nuclear war — is much higher than that. The Stern Review, the U.K. government’s premier report on the economics of climate change, estimated a 0.1 percent risk of human extinction every year. That may sound low, but it also adds up when extrapolated to century-scale. Across 100 years, that figure would entail a 9.5 percent chance of human extinction.
I think most people are totally unaware at how high the odds are that we screw up our species’ very existence. It’s so high, that the newly written Transhumanist Bill of Rights has a mandate for space exploration as one of its key six points.
The facts of existential risk are simple: We may not be able to indefinitely keep the planet habitable, stop a super virus from killing everyone, avoid a mile-wide asteroid from crashing into Earth, elude a warmongering Terminator-like AI or circumvent blowing ourselves up with our 25,000 nuclear warheads — but we sure can get off this planet and create cool new places to live safely in outer space.
Generally, politicians see no upside for sending astronauts to space except national pride.
The movie Elysium recently showed a dystopic but technologically plausible space habitat, where paradise is engineered in the skies — and not on Earth’s land or water. Now, no one wants to be forced into this scenario, but massive space habitats are worthwhile projects to pursue — and they could be possible to build in as little as 15 years.
Mega-space habitats would also make an easier launch base for space mining, an industry booming with interest. Experts say it will soon be possible to mine asteroids from space — some that are worth billions of dollars each. Clive Thomson at Wired recently wrote that the asteroid Ryugu — partially made of up of nickel, iron and cobalt — could be worth up to $95 billion.
As a science advocate, I’m strongly pro-space exploration from a private industry point of view. But just as importantly, I also passionately support a U.S. government-sponsored space program — one that gets approximately 10 times the funding it gets now (I’d get that extra money from our military budget, which is ridiculously oversized anyway). That would be nearly $100 billion a year, or about 5 percent of the U.S. 2016 Federal budget.
Generally, my libertarian-minded self doesn’t want the government too involved in much of anything, but because space exploration involves defending against existential risk and pursuing medical innovation for citizens, I’d advocate for the U.S. putting dramatically more resources into space exploration. This wouldn’t mean entirely relying on federal programs to push forward the space industry, but also on government partnering with or investing in private space companies.
Sadly, Congress will likely put up a fight against spending too much on peacetime space exploration — they do have that habit of being boring and shortsighted. So, perhaps the best way to grow America’s space industry is to sell Congress on the amount of benefits our nation might gain from a meaningful and dramatically enlarged space program. Generally, politicians — those directly responsible for funding (or not funding) NASA — see no upside for sending astronauts to space except national pride.
But if Congress could be convinced that national security against existential risk, money from space mining and precious tech innovation for U.S. citizens would be gained by supporting space exploration, then maybe they would vote to enlarge NASA’s programs. This in turn would spur both the private space industry as well as transhumanism tech that makes all our lives better. This type of thinking should be a priority for whoever ends up in Congress and the White House come 2017.