The stars are our destiny

Photo credit: Gintare Urbutyte.

Alci Rengifo
November 20, 2013
Filed under Opinion

Overpopulation, typhoons rendering entire countries to ash and rubble, and scarcity of resources are issues that require humanity’s immediate attention.

One of the great inescapable truths about human progress is that as we advance technologically, we will need to seriously consider the idea of moving out into space.

Space travel for the average reader will no doubt evoke immediate images from cinema. “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” and — heaven forbid — “Prometheus” are the vehicles for the popular concepts surrounding journeys into the black beyond. Films like Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 “2001: A Space Odyssey” foreshadowed space stations, moon landings and even Skype-esque communication.

Back then, as the United States and the Soviet Union raced against each other for technological supremacy, using space as their arena, the idea of space exploration was exciting and even romantic.

Today, space travel is not as romanticized, but it is a necessity. Tragically, even as space-adventure films like “Gravity” pull in millions at the box office, the U.S., a dominant superpower on the world stage, has scaled back serious space exploration. No longer are we excited about going into the unknown to become the next Marco Polo in the firmament.

The online journal “Space” reports that for 2014, the Obama administration has approved a $265 million cut in funding for planetary science programs. A cut of $50 million is also being applied to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Compare this to the $682 billion the U.S. sustains for military operations overseas.

“What drove us to the space race, to the moon, was politics; in all of these things, you need motivation,” said Simon P. Balm, a Santa Monica College astronomy professor.

“We will always want to explore,” he said. “That’s natural, but you need to get the public behind it.”

Indeed, space travel is not just about the heroism of it all. It is also about basic progress.

“If you look at it as a whole, there’s a lot of benefit from it,” Balm said.

The amount of technologies applicable to our everyday lives, which are the result of NASA science, is impressive. Among the notable technologies still expanding are infrared ear thermometers, which, according to NASA’s official website, “permit rapid temperature measurement of newborn, critically-ill, or incapacitated patients.”

Other highly useful tools and items being developed include advanced artificial limbs and heart pumps for patients awaiting heart transplants. All this is cooked up by the brains at NASA as they are trying to figure out how to keep someone mobile and alive in space, and then applying their discoveries to life on earth.

Even safety grooves on highways were first developed by NASA for landing aircraft. Radial tires with stronger, thicker fiber developed by companies such as Goodyear were first developed by NASA.

“A lot of what drove the Apollo program wasn’t just beating the Russians into space,” Balm said. “It was also trying to do some science. So you’ve got to try and justify on the scientific basis.”

Now imagine what can be developed and created if the space program starts focusing on long-term exploration into farther reaches such as Mars.

“It’s something we’re going to be forced to do,” Balm said. “If you think about it, the human population continues to expand. We’re running out of resources. We’re going to reach a point where the Earth can no longer sustain us.”

Earth will become very difficult to inhabit because we have damaged the environment. As civilizations progress, it will be natural for them to move out into space.

“My sense is that if we do go back to the moon, it would just be a stepping stone,” Balm said. “Our ultimate goal will be to go to Mars. It’s a much easier planet for us to adapt to live on. Mars is very Earth-like. If I were in NASA, and I had to choose where the money should go, I would be adventurous and push for Mars.”

One key point Balm made is that space travel is becoming a hot commodity for multimillion dollar companies. These corporations sell flights into space for any billionaire with the cash to spend on such a trip. Just flying up there is no longer the sole responsibility of NASA or government funding. Instead, money can now be divested specifically to a Mars mission or similar forms of exploration.

Balm warned that there are of course many risks.

“You even have to think in terms of the psychological,” he said. “Going to Mars would involve a small group of people stuck in a very small space for a long time together.”

Although adaptation would be difficult, it is possible. As a species, this is a reality we will have to become acquainted with in the near future.

“I think it is our destiny, whether we like it or not,” Balm said. “Either we do it on our own accord, or we will be forced out into space.”

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