Space Misplaced – Is It Worth Spacing Out?
In late 2013, India’s ISRO joined the ranks of NASA, ESA and the former Soviet Union as one of the only space agencies to send a spacecraft to Mars. The launch of the ‘Mangalyaan’ rocket was met with mixed reactions at home and around the world, ranging from terrible memes about rickshaw fares being more expensive, and controversial cartoons.
Among the chief criticisms of space exploration, both in India and around the world, are economic and stem from global concerns like the alleviation of hunger, poverty, disease and lack of access to basic infrastructure and education. India’s ISRO budget is about $1 billion per year, among the lowest in the world and 1/3rd of 1% of the country’s spending. However, news of the country’s celebrations at sending rockets to Mars is often met with contempt by many, for whom this kind of exercise is seen as largely wasteful.
In Aaron Sorkin’s, 1990’s TV masterpiece, The West Wing, the need for space exploration is described as one that is fundamental to our evolution: “Because we came out of the cave. Because we looked over the hill and saw fire. We crossed the ocean, pioneered the west, took to the sky. The history of man is on a timeline of exploration, this is what’s next.”
Following the Second World War, the era of the space race between the United States and Russia witnessed a cultural movement of optimism for mankind’s future, manifested in the form of great strides in technological innovations, many of which play an essential role in where we are today.
The dangerous and constraining conditions posed by space missions push the boundaries of innovation across all fields of science and technology, heralding the breakthroughs that brought us the GoPro, the cellphone camera, solar panels, GPS navigation, water filters, smoke detectors and velcro.
Spacecraft and satellites themselves have proved their worth on numerous occasions. In the past decade, ISRO’s weather satellites have saved tens of thousands of people from death and devastation thanks to early warnings of the direction and location of cyclones such as Vardah in 2016 and Phailin in 2014.
The inescapable fact of life on Earth is that the planet will inevitably lose its ability to sustain life to an optimal degree, by which point, advances in spaceflight and space travel will be the need of the hour, perhaps in hundreds of years, or relatively sooner. What was originally a relatively weak hypothesis, today is a full-fledged and widely accepted scientific theory that the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan Peninsula is the site of a massive asteroid impact responsible for the extinction of nearly all terrestrial species on Earth, including most dinosaurs. Even the combined efforts of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (replete with Aerosmith background score) a-la Armageddon 1998 wouldn’t be sufficient with present-day technology to save the planet from another age of extinction.
In the coming decade, it’s exceedingly likely that ours will be the generation to witness the first manned mission to Mars.
As the first words spoken on the red planet, 54 million miles away from home are immortalised, humankind would have successfully sent one of our own to a giant barren rock, with no food, no water and extreme temperatures. Thereby, moving us one small step closer to our understanding of the universe, and one giant leap ahead in technological innovations needed to survive those conditions.
Innovations that would inevitably find mainstream use on Earth to those who need it most.
All media for this piece is courtesy of the author