When I was growing up, I was fascinated by space. One of my earliest memories—and I know this is strange—is, when I was four or five years old, trying to grasp the concept of emptiness in space. I imagined the vast emptiness of space between galaxies, nothing but emptiness. I tried to imagine what that meant, but most of all, I tried to imagine what it would look like.
That question, what color empty space would be, rolled around my brain the most. I couldn’t shake it. I would be doing something–playing Nintendo, coloring, whatever–and that question would pop into my head again. What does “nothing” look like? First, I imagined that it would look black, the black of being deep in a forest at night. But that didn’t seem right, either; black is still “something.” And then, I remember, I realized I was thinking about a much worse question. I wasn’t trying to imagine what the emptiness of space would look like. I was trying to imagine what nothing would look like.
I have that memory, I think, because thinking about that sort of broke my brain. I couldn’t comprehend what nothing is.
That question, of course, begins down toward the central question of what our universe is and how it was created. I think that’s why space–the planets, stars, galaxies–so fascinated me then; it’s this thing so alien to our world, that dwarfs it on a scale that’s incomprehensible to us, and yet it is us. We aren’t something held apart separate from it, but intimately a part of it and its history.
Trying to understand the physics of our universe, its structure and history is also an attempt to understand ourselves. I think, at some gut level, I understood that as a kid.
I poured myself into learning about our solar system and galaxy. My parents’ Windows PC had Encarta installed, and I was enthralled. I spent countless hours reading everything I could find within Encarta (which, at the time, felt like a truly magical fount of knowledge) about Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. And when I exhausted that source, I asked for books about space, and I obsessed over them. They were windows into these incredible places, and I couldn’t believe that we were a part of such a wondrous universe.
Through elementary school, my love for space continued to blossom. Then, NASA were my heroes. To my eyes, they were the people designing and launching missions across our solar system so we could understand even more about it. Many of the photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune that I was so enraptured by were taken by spacecraft designed, built and launched by people at NASA. They were the people who had risked their lives to leave Earth and go to the Moon, to do something that most people up until just decades prior couldn’t even imagine as being possible. And they were the people who were exploring Mars with a little robotic rover called Sojourner that very moment.
They were my heroes because they were the people pushing us to explore our solar system, to learn what was out there and what came before us. I felt like I was at living during a momentous time in the history of humanity, and that I would live to see advances as incredible as 1969′s Moon landing. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.
That year, in 1997, I was nine years old. It’s been seventeen years.
Since then, we have indeed made great advances. In that time, we’ve sent three separate rovers to Mars, and we discovered that Mars certainly had liquid water on its surface long ago in its history. We landed a probe on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, which sent back these photos. We’ve discovered that our galaxy is teeming with solar systems.
All truly great things. But we are no closer today to landing humans on Mars than we were in 1997. In fact, we are no closer to putting humans back on the Moon today than we were in 1997.
Some people would argue that’s nothing to be sad about, because there isn’t anything to be gained by sending humans to Mars, or anywhere else. Sending humans outside Earth is incredibly expensive and offers us nothing that can’t be gained through robotic exploration.
Humanity has many urges, but our grandest and noblest is our constant curiosity. Through our history as a species, we have wondered what is over that hill, over that ridge, beyond the horizon, and when we sat around our fires, what are the lights we see in the sky. Throughout, someone has wondered, and because they wondered, they wandered beyond the border that marks where our knowledge of the world ends, and they wandered into the unknown. We never crossed mountains, deserts, plains, continents and oceans because we did a return-on-investment analysis and decided there were economic benefits beyond the cost to doing so. We did so because we had to in order to survive, and we did so because we had to know what was there. We were curious, so we stepped out of what we knew into certain danger.
And yet that tendency of ours to risk everything to learn what is beyond everything we know is also integral to all of the progress we have made as a species. While working on rockets capable of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, it would hardly be obvious what that would allow us to do. Would someone then have known that rocketry would allow us to place satellites into orbit which would allow worldwide communication, weather prediction and the ability to locate yourself to within a few feet anywhere on Earth? Economic benefits that result from progress are hardly ever obvious beforehand.
But it is more than that. It isn’t just that exploration drives concrete economic benefits. We think in narratives. Since the Enlightenment and industrial revolution, we have built a narrative of progress. With each year that passes, we feel that things improve. Our computers get faster, smaller, more capable; we develop new drugs and treatments for diseases and conditions that, before, would be crippling or a death sentence; with each year, our lives improve. For a century and a half or so, that feeling hasn’t been too far from reality. But most especially, we have continued to do something that cuts to the very center of what it means to be human: we have explored. We explored the most dangerous parts of Earth, we have explored our oceans, we put humans into space and humans stepped foot on a foreign body. There is a reason that, when we think of our greatest achievements as a species, landing on the Moon comes to mind with ease. At a very deep level within us, exploring the unknown is tied up with what it means to progress.
As exciting and useful as it is to send probes to other planets and moons, it fails to capture our imagination in the same way that sending people does. The reason is because doing so–exploring the unknown ourselves–is such an incredible risk. What Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins did in 1969 was unfathomably dangerous. They knew–everyone knew–that there was a very good chance that they would fail to get back to Earth. But they accepted that risk, because for them, learning about the unknown was worth that risk.
Abandoning human exploration of space, then, has consequences more far reaching than what its proponents intend. We would not just be abandoning putting humans into space, but at some fundamental level within us will be resigning ourselves to staying here. We will have decided, as a species, that we have gone far enough, we will leave our borders at our planet’s atmosphere, and leave the rest of the solar system and galaxy to nature. And with that decision, we will resign ourselves to no longer exploring in the general sense.
That’s why it is so integral that we continue exploring. Pushing on the edge of what’s possible is what fuels our desire and ability to explore in all other areas, too.
There are still incredible mysteries for us to unlock. We don’t know whether Mars had life early in its history. We don’t know whether, in Europa’s and Enceladus’s oceans, there are lifeforms swimming through them as I write this. We don’t know whether there is intelligent life living on planets in solar systems in the Milky Way and beyond. We don’t know how life began on Earth, let alone how life began at all. And most of all, we don’t know whether it is possible for us to move beyond our own solar system.
But what I do know is this: I want to know. I want to know.