What happened to space?

Troy Wilkinson

What happened to outer space? I sometimes forget that the cosmos exist from the amount of coverage the media give it. I hear about political deadlock and presidential elections far more often than space exploration.

Not to say that political deadlock and elections are not important issues, but I fail to understand how that is more exciting than space. Since a young age, I have been extremely optimistic about one day setting foot on the Moon or Mars. That seems like a far-fetched idea to many, but that is not too crazy these days. Thanks to the privatization of the space industry, companies such as SpaceX, a rocket manufacturing company, and Mars One, a non-profit that plans to put the first humans on Mars, are helping NASA in making progress in space exploration.

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Mars missions are starting to become more of a reality these days, but if humanity is ever going to look like “Star Trek,” we are going to have to do better than what we have going on right now. NASA is getting less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and now the destination is much further than the Moon. As a nation, we need to embrace and support space exploration much more. It is the future of humanity.

Why is it the future of humanity? Well, because it is expansion and it is discovery. Fixing problems and stopping catastrophes are obviously important, but that is not real progress, not in the grand scheme of things. Sure, when a financial crisis is averted, that is great, but that does not take humanity to new heights, that does not push the boundaries of technology and life as we know it. Space exploration does that. It is true progress.

The CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, is the new Steve Jobs, and he has high aspirations for space travel.­­ He is innovative, passionate and ambitious. Pair those qualities with actually being able to get things done and you, my friend, have a pioneer. Some other things on Musk’s résumé? He is the CEO of Tesla Motors, a high-performance all-electric car company, a chairman for Solar City, America’s top solar provider and the co-founder of PayPal. He is furthering the world in more ways than one, and I would not be surprised if he becomes a household name in the coming years.

Elon Musk during a TED Talk.

If it is not obvious enough already, I am a fan of Musk. He has big ideas and is one of the few people in the world trying to push humanity’s boundaries.

“The long term aspiration [of SpaceX] is to develop the technologies necessary to transport a large number of people and cargo to Mars in order to create a self-sustaining civilization there, and that’s really why I started the company,” said Musk in an interview with CNN.

He founded the SpaceX in 2002, more than 10 years ago. He had the dream of starting a colony on Mars and now he is making that a reality.

What can we learn from Musk? Probably a whole load of things, but one of the main takeaways is that he is not afraid of trying to realize his dreams. Not only that, but he is actually dreaming, something I feel many people these days have stopped doing.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is another big name in space culture and is a fairly well-known astrophysicist. The YouTube video titled “We Stopped Dreaming” represents what has happened to mainstream American culture these days. The video is a montage of relevant clips with Tyson talking over it. The title of the video could not be more fitting.

One of the topics Tyson talks about in the video is the NASA budget. In the past 40 years, the NASA budget has fallen from 4 percent of the federal budget to less than 1 percent.

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The federal budget is huge, and what space programs and research gets is nothing to scoff at. The amount they get is $16 billion (which from the perspective of a broke college student seems like a ton of money), but when compared to the total amount the government spends, $3.5 trillion, it puts into perspective the amount NASA is given.

Space exploration deserves more money. It is arguably the most progress-furthering industry for all of humanity, because it puts humanity in places it has never been before. If we bumped up the NASA budget to $25 billion, that would give the organization much more to work with and more room to experiment.

One underlying reason for space exploration not getting much attention in the media is its association with geek culture. What comes to mind when someone says space? For me, I instantly think of “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” American culture still depicts the space enthusiast as the uncool, nerdy, pocket calculator person (see “The Big Bang Theory) and while that may not be the main reason support for space exploration lacks, it could be something that contributes to the problem.

Thankfully, the association of space exploration with geek culture is changing, thanks to Tyson. He is not the stereotypical science geek, and over the past few years, he has become a bigger figure in pop culture. Tyson hosted the “Cosmos” remake, hosted a space talk show soon to be on National Geographic named “Star Talk” and has appeared on several talk shows.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Both Tyson and Musk are calm and collected speakers, and both do a phenomenal job of changing the stereotype of a babbling science nerd. Try watching an interview with either of them. It is hard not to be inspired.

Space exploration has so many positives, both tangible benefits and philosophical ones. Tangibly, humanity becomes multi planetary, and our species will not become extinct when a massive super volcano erupts or a catastrophic meteor hits Earth. I know these sound like crazy ideas of what could happen to Earth, but humanity should be prepared nonetheless. Global warming is a more reasonable and realistic threat. It would be nice if we did not have all of our eggs in one basket, especially a basket that is heating up and accumulating higher amounts of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere and oceans.

Mars has space (space to live, not outer-space), and if we find out how to save planet Earth from global warming but still cannot sustain all life just due to the sheer amount of humans there are, then all that saving was for nothing. Not to say that life would be perfect for the first colony on Mars, but the human population is growing and our planet is not. We need another place to look for resources and living space, which is what Mars and possibly other planets in space have to offer.

Though fictional, the movie “Interstellar” did a great job of illustrating what could happen. Humanity ran out of food and needed to find another planet to survive on or it was doomed. That is not the wildest prediction of the future.

A more philosophical positive that space exploration brings is a mission for the whole world to rally around. When humans set foot on Mars, you can believe that the whole world will be watching. The mission to the Moon inspired the whole nation and got the attention of other nations from all across the globe. A mission to Mars would do the same, if not more. Space exploration is a unifying activity and one that makes people dream and aspire to do great things, to be astronauts and scientists.

Space-X Rocket Launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket Launch

The will to brave the unknown is sorely lacking these days, which is why space exploration is so necessary. When countdown to liftoff begins and as the ground begins to shake, I start to become inspired. Fear of the unknown is no match for the inspiration that a rocket launch brings.

When I look back on the world’s history, the discovery of North America and the exploration of it all are the most interesting parts. Those periods in time show a thirst for exploration and adventure. The Earth is uncovered. Aside from the deep depths of the Ocean, there is little overall discovery to be had, and that is saddening to me. Humanity should always be exploring, trying to further itself in the universe, but right now, it is not doing the best job of that.

One of the first people to attempt ascending Mt. Everest, George Mallory, famously replied to the question “Why climb Mount Everest?” He answered, “Because it is there.” Getting to Mars, exploring space, going further than ever before, that is now humanity’s Everest. Humanity should look to the stars not only “because it is there.” Humanity should look to the stars because only there will true progress be made.

Collegian Columnist Troy Wilkinson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @blumitts.