We invest so much money to go into space - why not invest it in protecting the Earth first?
On 19 February 2021, after travelling for almost seven months through space, NASA's rover Perseverance landed on Mars.
It is a triumph for mankind, with similar missions planned by other nations in the future.
But should taxpayer's money be spent on space travel when the world faces so many other problems urgently requiring financial support? As Ethan Siegel pointed out in an article he wrote in 2017 for Forbes: “the average American taxpayer with $10,000 income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space.” This is low compared to other pursuits with Biden's new administration promising more money than ever to environmental causes. America's rejoining of the Paris Agreement is a testament to the country's renewed dedication to fighting climate change.
It is also worth pointing out that NASA's budget can only be spent on pursuits that are directly related to space and aeronautics. More solar expeditions are inevitable in the future. Therefore, why not start now?
Seigel mentions that space programs play vital roles in food production, as the satellites orbit the earth and transmit important information regarding weather and land use potential. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential technological advancements of space programs to alleviate the problems back on earth.
However, Seigel wrote his article in 2017, and at the time a virus causing global havoc would have just been a futuristic nightmare. Therefore, the question is not whether we should be going to Mars at all, but rather should we be going to Mars right now? During a pandemic that has devastated many of the world's poorest, most hungry people.
Seigel himself stated: "the voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry."
It is important to note that there are two sides to the Mars mission. It goes along the lines of forgetting life on Mars - first let's preserve life on earth.
After the landing, President Biden tweeted: "Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility."
However, every day the power of negligence and denial of science is indeed proving that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. That is to say, the possibility of the occurrence of one of the most devastating mass extinctions our planet has ever seen.
Nasa's rover is called Perseverance - aptly named, you might say, as it symbolises the great persistence of humankind that will define our age for generations to come. However, it could be argued that we do not only need to persevere we need to preserve. Our era may well be defined by its technological advances in the field of space travel or, on our current trajectory, we could be defined by something very different entirely. We could be remembered for being the generations who failed to address climate change quickly enough. The age of humans that allowed devastating disasters to wreak havoc on ecosystems, to destroy natural habitats, to melt solar ice caps, to provoke mass extinctions, to flood islands - the list goes on and on. All done to fill the pockets, stomachs, and egos of the rich - and simultaneously undernourishing and silencing the poor and desperate. An age of hate, discrimination, negligence, and polarisation; an age that offered so much but delivered so little.
Our system has failed to help those who need it. Finding 3bn year old fossilised remains of microbes on Mars does nothing for the inhabitants of the Maldives whose homes are on the brink of flooding by rising sea levels. The polar bear does not care about life on another planet when the northern reaches of the earth are becoming uninhabitable due to warming temperatures melting the ice. Close to 1bn people on earth are hungry. They want food, not evidence of life on Mars.
The question would therefore be: before we look for life on other planets, can we first protect life on our own?
It would seem harsh chastising solar exploration when there are plenty of other pursuits undertaken by the wealthy that do not benefit those in need or the environment. Of course, like Siegel points out, one day space travel might be essential to preserve life - in the case of some devastating event that rendered Earth uninhabitable.
However, a project that costs $2.7bn funding a mission that fundamentally concerns "life" seems like it should offer more for the lives of billions of humans, animals, and plants on earth. More money needs to be spent on social progression and environmental protection.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only increased the divide between the rich and the poor. The minority groups who are at most risk do not have a voice. We need to wake up and hear what they have to say. If we are serious about the importance of life anywhere in the universe then we should start close to home. Otherwise, it all appears like an international publicity stunt – the bicep flexing of the wealthiest nations as they find another way to compete with each other.
Going beyond a single multi-billion-dollar scheme, and even thinking beyond the current impending climate disaster. The real issue boils down to a fault in the values we live in today. A fault in the fundamental structures which dictate our behaviours and lives.
Our solutions always seem to involve the great ingenuity of our species. However, our problems always involve our extraordinary ability to ignore, deny, or denounce information presented in front of us. And right now, our problems outweigh our solutions.
The whole system is not functioning. The way we treat our land, nature and each other is not in the best interests of our planet's and our survival. Individually and collectively, we need fundamental change to tackle the issues facing us. We need our global leaders to wake up. We need some of our renowned ingenuity to prove once again that "nothing is beyond the realm of possibility"; and that we can turn the tide on an environmental disaster, crippling poverty, and societal devastation. We need to do what it takes to be part of the era we know we can be - the era that overcame climate change, eradicated world hunger, and improved lives.
So, should we be going to Mars? The bottom line is that solar exploration is necessary for our advancement as a species but so too is addressing the current systematic problems facing us. The two pursuits cannot be at the expense of one another.
We need action now otherwise the hypothetical microbial species on Mars may be the only life left in our solar system.
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