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Next Stop: Outer Space

22 August 2017

Humankind has been drawn to the cosmos since our beginning. There is something in the sky that resonates with us all, forcing us to ponder not only the universe, but our place within it. These strange space rocks have captivated people and cultures all over the world, inspiring art, literature and legends of creation.

Humans have gazed at the same stars for millenia and taken different meaning from the happenings of the sky – was Venus a representation of the Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite? Or did she demand the sacrifice of a young girl, as the Pawnee Native Americans believed? In Ancient Egypt, the Milky Way represented the sky goddess, Nut, giving birth to the sun god Ra, while the Mayans believed it was the road where souls travelled to the underworld. Our celestial observations can tell us a lot about our species. We formulate stories to try and answer our questions: where did we come from, how did we get here and what is our purpose? The imaginations of humans have constructed highly creative and diverse answers from the patterns we see in the sky, passed down from our ancestors to us.

In 1969, we cemented our legacy as a species who not only dream of celestial bodies, but who also explore them. Approximately one quarter of the global population watched or listened from Earth as American space agency NASA sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. This mission placed the United States at the forefront of the ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union, yet it was an achievement for all of humankind nonetheless. Humankind had achieved the impossible, and we became pioneers of both Earth and space.

The Apollo 11 mission marked the beginning of an exciting future for our species. Surely the moon, our closest neighbour, was only the first step in what would be a turbulent future of space exploration. In a television broadcast after returning home, Buzz Aldrin proclaimed, “This has been far more than three men on a voyage to the moon…this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”

After the moon-landing, experts said that we had entered a new era. The December 1969 edition of National Geographic told the story of Apollo 11, and discussed the potential to send astronauts to Mars in the 1980s. In the magazine, NASA administrator Dr Thomas O. Paine wrote, “I believe that men will drive onward in the years ahead to Mars, to the moons of Jupiter, and to other new worlds in our vast solar system.”

But for some reason or another, we swept aside our vision as an interstellar species. Today, 0.47 per cent of the American federal budget is allocated to NASA, compared to a mammoth 4.41 per cent in 1966 during the lead up to the Apollo 11 mission. While nations have conducted manned flyby missions and robotic missions to other planets, the desire to land humans on other planets seems to have subsided. On one hand, the delay is justified – human-controlled space flight is extremely risky. The probes and robots we send to space to do the work for us gain valuable information while preventing loss of human life. Additionally, space exploration is incredibly costly, and governments would likely be met with opposition if they devoted a large sum of the federal budget to leaving Earth, rather than fixing Earth’s problems.

Despite this, our plans to explore the solar system have by no means ceased. On 13 July, the Australian Government announced that we may be getting our very own space agency here in Australia. Currently, we are one of the only countries in the developed world without a space program. Australia has always been valuable in the international space scene for our satellite technology, for example, our satellite dish in Parkes, NSW, was the primary receiver of signals from the moon during Apollo 11. However, unless we create an agency, our role in the future of space exploration will be limited.

On the other hand, NASA has announced that they will be sending humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s, while SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk is talking about full-blown colonisation. Musk aims to establish human colonies on Mars within our lifetime, making humans a “space-bearing civilisation and multi-planetary species”. Recognising that single-use space transportation is simply unaffordable, Musk is creating a fully reusable rocket and space ship capable of transporting 100 people to Mars, which he calls the ‘Interplanetary Transport System’.

Regardless of whether SpaceX or NASA is the first to send us to the red planet, our visions will no doubt soon be set on the skies once again. The first moon-landing was motivated by a Cold War, so what will send us to the skies this time? The effects of climate change may force us to leave Earth as it is gradually becoming more uninhabitable due to atmospheric warming. If we cannot reverse the direction of global warming, colonising other planets may be the only way to safeguard our species’ existence.

In Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, she talks about how the early Homo Sapiens were the only species on Earth to ever look to the vastness of the oceans and decide to cross them, perceiving that something tangible might lay on the other side. Perhaps, she says, we are slightly insane to attempt a feat of these proportions, knowing that we would likely die at sea for only a slim chance of finding land.

Are we mad to risk our lives to explore the skies in the hope of finding something worthwhile? Maybe, but perhaps multi-planetary aliens from different galaxies are already co-existing, waiting for the humans of planet Earth to join the party.