One Small Step for Man
Humankind, victims of their own success, seems to have nowhere else to explore. Every continent is populated and travel has now become easy to the average man. Space remains the “Final Frontier” and as George Mallory summed up well when asked why he climbed Mount Everest, he replied “Because it was there”. Since the race to the moon in the late 60’s, man has not stepped on the big rock in the sky since 1972 and it is likely they never will again. Even that was an extremely unpopular decision at the time, as polls showed that 45-60% of the population thought the government was spending too much on space travel. We explore our galaxy with unmanned probes but smaller funding restricts the capabilities of space programs like NASA of truly reaching its potential. This is the cut and dry of it, space travel is now seen as a luxury few can afford and risks being neglected for more pressing matters.
The unknown path of space travel
No-one on Earth, not the richest among us, can just leave the planet. The lack of profit and exuberant costs means no private industries will ever finance such exploration. The length of such a project could easily outlast the company financing it and technological problems mean the finish line could keep shifting further away. Nations, or more likely a cluster of nations remain the only plausible sponsors of space programs, but they face problems of their own. Single governments face the ever need to balance their budgets and public demand pushes space travel further down the list. While an alliance between nations would face constant unrest as countries fought for their best interests over their rivals. The real push for space travel will be when the planet we live on no longer remains a viable home – be it through war or our inevitable use of finite resources.
The end of the world could push mankind into space travel
The main problem is that space travel seems so far off being possible, that it strains to remain in the public eye and therefore loses backing. Looking at figures in USA from 2006, the government spent around $7 billion a year on space programmes, this may sound like a lot but when you consider they spent around $10 billion a month in Iraq then you can see so much more can be done. It doesn’t help that current projects like Virgin Galactic are now selling flights around the orbit of the planet to those rich enough to afford it, reinforcing the perception that space travel is now more of a luxury. But further investment is very much needed in the research being carried out. Space travel has short term benefits as well as long term, encouraging more kids into studying science and engineering as well as supplying the government with new income e.g. Many NASA products have become household products (memory foam pillows, water filters). In fact the landing on the moon is said to have sparked the craze of miniaturisation in technology leading to products like mobile phones. Despite this, the percentage of spending on space travel has dropped from 4.4% in 1966 to just 0.5% last year, showing a clear decrease in the motivation to finance space programs like NASA.
NASA’s budget cut by half in the last two decades
But there have been improvements in the market, SpaceX is one of them. A privately run rocket company that is very efficient and ambitious, so much so that NASA started outsourcing to the company in 2008. This could be the way forward, as private firms could start moving into the industry and bring in more finance as well as new methods for working out problems. Another improvement has been the planned Space Elevator, a structure that could transfer material up into space without using rocket ships. This is an idea being pioneered by Google in its X labs and could become reality in the next decade, showing how creative private firms could hold the answer to solving the world’s problems in space.
Google Space Elevator
But more importantly humankind should see that exploration into space is in its long term benefits. This requires a united global effort that surpasses national interests and plants the seeds for future expansion of humans into new realms yet to be explored. This seems unlikely in a world that is splintered by political agenda’s but if it could be achieved, could lead the world into a more unified planet in more ways than the space program.