Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX, recently launched a Tesla Roadster into space, sending Twitter and other social media outlets into a flurry of excitement, as people worldwide shared images and memes of Starman in space. However, this launch also created a backlash from some people who question if the $100 million or so that Musk spent on the mission could have been put to better use, directly feeding or housing the less fortunate people in society.
What did the launch of the Falcon Heavy, carrying the first automobile in space accomplish? In just one move, SpaceX surpassed the abilities of the Russian space program, putting the company, in many ways, behind only the United States and China in its ability to bring goods, and humans, into space. The most powerful rocket in the world is now in the hands of a private group of investors and developers who love science.
There are many issues facing the world, including homelessness, starvation, and endemic disease. However, the greatest threats to our planet are coming in the future, and many of these could wipe out life around the globe. In addition to man-made dangers, such as climate change or nuclear war, the Sun is experiencing changes that could lead to catastrophe here on Earth. Asteroids often whiz past the Earth, and we currently have no way of seeing them until it would be far too late to stop a planet-killer from hitting our home world.
The only way to ensure that our species survives a planet-wide disaster is to move a sizable population of our population to one or more alien worlds. Only by doing so can we ensure that our species is not wiped out in a single moment of madness, or by the combined greed of industrialists. While NASA hopes to land a handful of space travelers on Mars for a short stay sometime in the 2030’s, Musk intends to put one million people on the Red Planet by the 2060’s. Within decades, we may see humans living and working on the Moon, Mars, and possibly some of the largest asteroids. From there, our descendants can spread out to several of the largest moons of Jupiter and Saturn, further expanding our base, and with it, our chances for long-term survival.
“This is not about everyone moving to Mars, this is about becoming multiplanetary. This is really about minimizing existential risk and having a tremendous sense of adventure,” Musk explained.
In the short term, the launch of a Tesla into space created an excitement about space travel and science that has not been seen since the days of Apollo 11, nearly 50 years ago. The general public loses interest quickly in space developments, as NASA learned as they sent subsequent missions to the Moon in the early 1970’s. Such missions quickly become seen as “routine,” a fate shared by the Space Shuttle after its first few flights.
Following the near-disaster of Apollo 13 in 1970, and the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, NASA greatly reduced the scope and vision of their missions. The Russian space program, which sent the first man (and woman) into space, was beset by financial difficulties and quickly fell into disarray. Although the International Space Station (ISS) is home to fantastic science and is an essential step toward the colonization of the solar system, it does not excite most people, or generate a widespread love of science.
If humans are to live beyond the eventual death of the planet Earth, we need vast numbers of people, especially youth, to become excited about science. This is especially true of young women, who are traditionally underrepresented in physics and astronomy.
SpaceX is willing to take risks, and do the unexpected, and this is exactly what we, as a species, need right now. Our future depends on it.