Science & Technology

Space Race 2.0: Why go beyond the Earth?

The urge to look towards the sky stems from an intrinsic human curiosity emanating out of not just scientific but also existential queries

By Aditya Misra
Published: Wednesday 01 May 2019
"Pale Blue Dot" is the most distant image of Earth, taken from a distance of about 6.5 billion km by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. Photo: NASA

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

This was American astronomer Carl Sagan talking about Earth, a pale blue dot, as seen from the edge of our solar system. The photo was clicked by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990 before it exited our solar system.

The idea behind the “pale blue dot” was to capture an image of Earth from a greater distance than ever before. The decision, however, came after much deliberation. Clicking the photo required pointing Voyager 1’s camera towards the sun, which posed a risk to its imaging system. It also required months-long calibrations for a snapshot that would be of no practical use. Even Sagan admitted the image would have no scientific value. He, nevertheless, insisted on it being taken as it would provide a much-needed perspective on our place in the universe.

Almost three decades later, when Elon Musk launched his Tesla Roadster car into the space in 2018, the question was broadly the same. What was the point? What was the point of playing music in space when sound waves have no medium to travel? But not only is the car playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to an audience of zero (to the best of our knowledge), it also has “Made on Earth by humans” engraved on its circuit board, in case a curious alien, with an inclination towards mechanical engineering, chances upon it. Musk’s rationale for all of this: “It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that silly and fun things are important.”

Private investments in space have skyrocketed in recent years. A November 2017 report by the US financial services firm Morgan Stanley says that space could be the next trillion dollar industry. Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are at the centre of this boom because of a 'disruptive' technology they have mastered. "Some fifty years after the advent of the Space Age, no one had ever flown a rocket past the edge of space and landed it vertically. Now it had been performed twice in less than a month," writes Christian Davenport, a Washington Post journalist, in his 2018 book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, referring to Blue Origin’s soft landing of New Shepard rocket in November 2015 and SpaceX's Falcon 9 replicating the feat in December the same year. Till date, even NASA has not been able to do that. (Right now, NASA does not even send humans to space and depends on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station).

These reusable rockets have drastically cut launch costs — from $200 million to $60 million—and the figure is projected to come down to $5 million. Governments too have taken note of the trend. Since 2000, over 25 countries have set up space agencies, which include Japan, Australia and the UK. At least 15 of these agencies were set up in or after 2010. The African Union is also discussing setting up a pan-African space agency and Nigeria has announced ambition to send a human to space by 2030.

There are those who argue that investing in space exploration is pointless when there is so much to be done for people on Earth. But this view does not take into account the scientific and philosophical tangible and intangible values of pushing the boundaries. Without the urge to under-stand the universe we might all be still convinced that the sun goes around the Earth. In completely practical terms there would never be any reason to explore space. But that urge to look beyond is a very intrinsic one and emanates not just from scientific but also existential queries.

Then there are those who say that private companies have ulterior motives and want to access celestial bodies for resources. Is that why the billionaire investors are doing it? It seems naive to assume that businessmen like Musk and Bezos would pore absurd amount of resources into space exploration with no plans to profit. After all, they have made their fortunes by betting on technologies that seemed impractical at that time. However, it would also be too simplistic to think that it is solely the lure of money that is driving their pursuits. They have enough cash to live and die a comfortable death, even if Earth were to run out of resources or become uninhabitable (which it won’t in their lifetime). Exploration, if not survival of the species, appears to be partly their cause.

Sometime this year, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, will be in a position to break Voyager 1’s record and take an even more distant photo of Earth. When or whether it will happen is not decided. Just like the “pale blue dot”, the photo will be of no great scientific value. But as Andy Cheng, who led the team that designed and build the camera on-board New Horizons, told Down To Earth, “If we do acquire such an image, it would not be for science, but for cultural significance.”

Not to mention that it will be silly and fun.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated May 1-15, 2019)

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