I was very excited about Elon Musk unveiling his plans for colonizing Mars, but reading many of the comments I am reminded of an attitude problem towards so many people who try to advance the human race.
I like to call these people the crab people, from the tendency of crabs trapped in a pot to pull each other down thus ensuring the doom of everybody.
People will imbue Elon Musk with all sorts of uncharismatic traits, like his is just doing this as a PR stunt. Then there are those who think this is a huge waste of resources and that we should solve earth’s problems first. Others eagerly point out every little failure Elon Musk has endured: blown up rockets, missed deadlines etc. This all seems more important in defining the man than his accomplishments as first private company to dock and deliver cargo to the international space station or drastically reducing the cost of launching payload into earth orbit.
Before one ridicules space exploration as a waste, I think there is a need for perspective. Here is an article comparing e.g. NASA budgets with other expenditures. In 2009 NASA’s budget was $17.2 billion. In comparison much more money was spent on the following in America:
- $586.5 billion a year on gambling
- $88.8 billion on tobacco products
- $64 billion on illegal drugs.
- $27 billion on pizza.
If we compare how much money is spent on cosmetics, the fashion industry, on military etc it would dwarf the Space industry completely. But space exploration never seems to be contrasted with any of this. Instead a mission to Mars is presented as an expenditure of money which could have gone to solving global warming, world hunger, cancer or whatever.
Somehow this only seems to happen to noble causes. I never see people attack a person building a huge Casino by saying that he could have spent the money on giving fresh water to the poor or treating malaria. I see the same way of argumentation pop up when we e.g. help refugees in Norway. People always seem to imagine that money was always taken from old and sick people and given to refugees. But nobody asks when they build a bubble bath at home or takes an expensive vacation to Thailand whether they could have given that money to the old and sick instead.
Of course not, because it is always about tearing down other people who try to do something good by telling them that you should have helped somebody who needed it even more.
That space exploration somehow retards the progress on cancer or world poverty is fundamentally broken logic, because by that token nothing can really be done before all our most pressing concerns are solved. We can’t do arts, understand how electricity works, perform an opera, determine the laws of gravity and planetary motion or anything until nobody is poor, hungry, sick and live in peace.
There is a great letter by Ernst Stuhlinger to a nun in Africa in the 1970s which address this particular issue very well. I like this quote relating to a count in Germany 400 years ago who spent a lot of money on the poor. He had discovered a man who spent is spare time trying to look at small objects by grounding small glass lenses. He was intrigued by this and let the man engage in his hobby full time at the count’s expense. The reaction by the townspeople where like the reaction by many against Elon Musk:
The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!” But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”
Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible
We don’t know what will come out of space exploration or Mars colonization but we do know that if man had only cared about his most immediate needs at all times we would still be living in the stone age. Society has advanced because people have been willing to go out and explore and investigate.