Other than Covid-19, inflation, the collapse of Hong Kong as a free society, and a continuing bull stock market, the last two years have been a time of space development. We have also seen two companies offer space tourism, the development of the largest rocket in history, the landing of the Mars Rover, and the launch of the $10 Billion James Webb space telescope. These developments are likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars – although critics question if such vast sums should not be spent back on earth helping the poor and disadvantaged. But if we look at the history of man, space exploration is inevitable and short of the collapse of modern civilization, it will continue.
The history of Homo Sapiens is relatively new in evolutionary terms, perhaps only 200,000 years. In people terms, 200,000 years is only 2,500 lifetimes. And only 100,000 years ago did we leave Africa, about 1,250 lifetimes. Only 12,000 years ago – 150 lifetimes – we started to become farmers and herders. 600 years ago – eight lifetimes – the Portuguese and the Chinese started to explore the world through global ocean navigation. The Industrial age began in earnest 200 years ago – just 2.5 lifetimes. Space exploration began in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1, not quite a full lifetime.
Our big brains, bipedalism and highly socialized structure, allowed primitive peoples to conquer every continent in the world (except for the Antarctic). We see Bushman in the Kalahari Dessert, Sherpas in the Himalayas, and ancient tribes in the Amazon Jungle. None of these habitats is our natural setting: we were built for long distance running in the Savanah of Africa. So how is it that a hairless ape can somehow adapt to live almost anywhere on earth using only primitive tools? The most remarkable must be the Inuit people. I was lucky enough to spend six months with them in the near arctic. These people live in the most inhospitable place on the planet – where Polar Bears are the apex predator – not people. With no natural hair, they should freeze in a minute through eight months of the year. They have no ability to cultivate crops. They do not herd animals. And there are not even any trees in the arctic to build shelters, tools or weapons.
Since humans first left Africa, they have learned to adapt to their environment and have literally taken over the world. Whether it is genetic, environmental, or social, humans have an insatiable urge to explore, develop technology, and push any limit that we confront. Contrary to most senior members of the British Royal Family, who believe that self-made billionaires should use their wealth only for the alleviation of poverty and suffering, the history of man reveals that wealthy people have always had an interest in exploration and technological development. The exploration of the China’s Grand Fleet in 1412, the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, and almost all the European Age of Discovery are illustrations of how wealth and exploration have gone hand in hand. Our complex society can do 100 things at the same time – and exploration has always been one of them.
I was brought up in the 1960s, and for many of us, particularly teenage boys, space exploration was one of our biggest fascinations and inspirations. We watched almost every rocket launch and never missed an episode of Star Trek – with the immortal words of Captain James T. Kirk spoken at the start of every show – SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER. We read Isaac Asimov science fiction about life beyond planet Earth. In the 1960’s, NASA was spending was four per cent of US government budget. Today, NASA’s budget is only 0.5 per cent of the US government budget. This lack of US government funding will not stop the human drive for exploring space. It is the biggest challenge we have ever faced – and it may be our ultimate destiny to escape planet Earth and explore the Universe.
Sadly, the world has recently become more divisive than at any time in living memory. We used to believe that in exploring space, it was inevitable that people of the world would come together as one (I am sure John Lennon was a fan of Star Trek). That countries of the world would join forces, economically and scientifically, as no country, not even the USA or the USSR, could shoulder the full burden of space exploration.
The dream of government led joint space exploration seems unlikely at the moment – what is more likely is global commercial interests working together to develop space. Unlike space exploration in the 1960s, global entrepreneurs are finding new and innovative ways to finance their dreams, which don’t necessarily involve massive reliance on public funds.
Perhaps my dreams are stuck in the 1960s, where we heard time and again, from every astronaut who looked out their window and marvelled at how beautiful the world was, that there were no political divisions from space and that the world was really only one small vulnerable blue planet. I still cling to the hope that space exploration can and will bring us all together despite the recent rise of our polarized society.
Randy Boldt is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.