Science & Technology

Humans will leave Earth not to explore, but to exploit

Wing Commander (retired) Rakesh Sharma recently completed 35 years of being the first Indian to have ever set foot in space. He talked to Down To Earth about the exhilarating moment, space exploration, humans as multi-planetary species, ISRO’s plan to send a humanoid to space and weaponisation of space in a four-part series. Here is the second one:

 
By Rakesh Sharma
Last Updated: Friday 26 April 2019
Space technology
Wing Commander (retired) Rakesh Sharma in conversation with Down To Earth. Photo: Srikant Chaudhary Wing Commander (retired) Rakesh Sharma in conversation with Down To Earth. Photo: Srikant Chaudhary

Private sector enterprises will play a major role in getting this whole endeavour of going to space and it’s good as well as bad. Good because for this activity to scale up inputs from the private sector are required because scaling up is not easy within the public sector. I suspect that, going forward, exploration will still remain in the domain of governments but exploitation of space will probably pass on to the private sector.

Today, space is more of an asset, a resource rather than something we want to know about as explorers. But then you know, this is to be expected. Nobody ever explores just for the sake of tourism. When you explore, you want to know what all you can get out of that place and what are the assets which are hidden, maybe sub-soil, and what are the advantages of the environment and how can you derive benefit from it. So that is a natural corollary to exploration. The exploration, at least in our celestial neighbourhood, is more or less over since Mangalyaan has gone, Chandrayaan has gone.

We have got quite a few probes. There is a probe or two which has gone out of solar system. So we have pretty much mapped the territory where we would in the future like to operate. So now that that’s done, the time has now come to move out. But I think the more significant event which we are going to be seeing is that for the first time human civilisation is going to relocate. A part of it at least. Because this time we are going not to explore, we are going to exploit. We are going not to visit, we are going to inhabit. Because to realise the aims of exploitation, you have got to live there. You cannot commute. The distances are so much that you cannot do a Monday to Friday kind of a thing. It’s expensive.

Also, humans, in the far future, really don’t have to be a multi-planetary species. You can’t keep escaping places which are your natural habitat. The very idea of getting technologically advanced and not realising what’s your home planet that sustains life, makes you continue to destroy it. Having plundered it and destroyed it, we move off somewhere else and cause the same kind of mayhem in a different place. This is so regressive. So it doesn’t have to be like that.

Earth is the cradle of our civilisation but by all means go out. But that doesn’t mean you don’t respect and you don't live with the environment. I think we need to focus as much as much if not more in saving the environment and what we have because it is sustaining life. Instead, we are going to go to a place which is barren and we are going to face humongous technological challenges to replicate the kind of environment which is going to sustain life over there. And once you do start exploiting that place, you are going to leave it in a worse state than when you had occupied it. Unless you change the way you live, unless we realise that we have to live with the environment, we won’t understand that the environment is not for plundering. It is there to sustain life.

If given a choice between Moon and Mars about where humans should settle first, I will choose the Moon because that’s where we will need to cut our teeth. That’s where we will need to go. It would be a kind of a proof of concept. It’s closer, it’s approachable, we have been there before, we have got pretty good knowledge of what the moon is all about. There is evidence that there is water there. So it’s a lot more welcoming than Mars as presently.

(As told to Akshit Sangomla)

Here is the first part of the series: Earth’s resources not infinite, so space exploration natural

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