Space: It’s cold. It’s boring. It’s not our concern.


The news that some rank gas on Venus is a strong (though not conclusive) indicator of microbial life outside our planet has been greeted with much enthusiasm. The truth, perhaps, is really out there, albeit far smaller and less intelligent than X-Files promised.

It is also, I suggest, none of our business. The contents of the cold, empty darkness beyond Earth’s orbit are not really our concern. Space is not for humans, and we should leave it alone.

The physical attributes of space make this obvious. Other planets, various nonplanetary bodies, and the void of space itself are not suited to human life. It is not our home, nor will it ever be absent massive terraforming projects, which could well prove impossible or even disastrous. What is terraforming, after all, if not deliberate climate change on an unprecedented scale? Or what grim consequences could we suffer if we take our worldly conflicts to space or bring back some extraterrestrial invasive species? These questions are better left unanswered. Outer space is utterly unhospitable to us, and we should take the hint.

Ah, space lovers may protest, but space exploration is a source of many benefits to humanity. Is it, though? The benefits of travel and research outside the Earth’s orbit are almost entirely secondary. That is, the innovations and discoveries made in the course of work toward space exploration are telluric achievements we could have reached without involving space at all.

Tab through NASA’s 26-page tract of “Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration” and you’ll find boasts of by-products “from solar panels to implantable heart monitors, from cancer therapy to light‐weight materials, and from water‐purification systems to improved computing systems and to a global search‐and‐rescue system.” Of these, only the last item is space-specific, and it uses satellites in terrestrial orbit.

Seeking to circumvent the very suggestion I am making, the NASA document quotes deeply irritating science barker Neil deGrasse Tyson. “People often ask, ‘If you like spin‐off products, why not just invest in those technologies straightaway, instead of waiting for them to happen as spin‐offs?'” Tyson says. “The answer: It just doesn’t work that way.” He continues:

Let’s say you’re a thermodynamicist, the world’s expert on heat, and I ask you to build me a better oven. You might invent a convection oven, or an oven that’s more insulated or that permits easier access to its contents. But no matter how much money I give you, you will not invent a microwave oven. Because that came from another place. It came from investments in communications, in radar. The microwave oven is traceable to the war effort, not to a thermodynamicist. [Neil deGrasse Tyson, via NASA]

This is an effective explanation of positive externalities in scientific research, but it no more proves the necessity of space exploration than the necessity of war. Scientific inquiry does not have to involve leaving Earth or killing its inhabitants on a mass scale to produce valuable spin-off products. Perhaps we would not have the …read more

Source:: The Week – Science


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