Whenever anybody writes about fantastical subjects like space exploration or colonization of other worlds, there will be naysayers arguing that it is all pointless waste. For those I ask you to read my essay on the crab people.
The honest truth is that nobody can really know for sure what will come out of space exploration and colonization.
But few probably knew where computers, lasers and rockets would take us when they were first invented. Computers are everywhere today, inside car engines, cell phones, navigation system, entertainment systems. Lasers have been used for mass storage like CDs and DVDs, data transfer through fibre optics, surgery, distance measurement devices and many more things. Rockets is what has allowed us to get satellites into orbits, giving us photos of the earth and GPS satellites helping people almost every day navigate with their smart phone using Google maps.
Benefits of Space Exploration and Colonization
What exactly the main benefit from space exploration and colonization will be, I don’t know, but we can certainly make educated guesses.
There is clearly big economic potential. Most valuable metals on the earth are not easily accessible on the surface and they are usually bound in various minerals. On asteroids many elements exist in pure form and are easily accessible once you get to the asteroid. They are not buried deep in the ground. One favorite example is that of platinum. That is a rare and very expensive metal on earth, not so much on asteroids. A single small asteroid can contain more platinum than has been mined on earth in through all of its history.
It is easy to see how large quantities of cheap platinum and other rare earth metals would influence the economy. E.g. most of the challenges with fuel cell cars seems to be the reliance on expensive metals like gold and platinum. If there were suddenly cheap, one would not have to spend fortunes researching complicated alternatives. Similar challenges likely exist in many other industries.
Of course nobody knows how this will play out as there are so many unsolved challenges. For instance nobody knows of any cheap way of getting the metals down to earth. Although there are certainly lots of interesting ideas to explore.
Lifting any mass off the earth into space costs a fortune, so there is a lot of money to be made potentially by manufacturing rocket fuel in space. Many asteroids have the necessary chemical components to do so. This could make distant travels to other planets or the moon cheaper. Of course the cynic will assert this as a mute point as we don’t need to go to either of these locations.
While it might not make much sense to manufacture things in space only to ship them down to earth at a high expense, there is certainly an opportunity to manufacture things which will be needed in space. Launching satellites into space is prohibitively expensive. Satellites have lots of uses for us on earth, so it is certainly economically interesting to make this far cheaper.
With an industry in orbit using resources from asteroids, one could manufacture satellites in space and send them into earth orbit without the need for huge rockets.
An easy objection to this is that, a satellites requires so many specialized parts, that a huge complicated space industry would be needed to make them.
However one can be practical and develop this in stages. In early stages specialized components would be simply shipped to an orbiting space factory, which mainly create structural elements like struts, shells etc, with 3D printers one can easily create a large variation of shapes and structures as long as they are composed of some homogenous material.
Avoid Keeping All Eggs in One Basket
This is Elon Musk’s rational for colonizing our solar system. In principle any disaster could happen in some distant future spelling doom for humanity. We could get hit by a huge asteroid, rough planet or destroy ourselves in an accidental global nuclear war.
Having colonies on other planets makes for a good backup plan. It is worth nothing however that I specifically did NOT mention global climate change, because while a serious problem for us on earth, it isn’t all that dangerous compared to the other scenarios listed. However bad global warming gets, it can’t get worse than the environment we’ll have to deal with on the moon, Mars, Venus, Titan, Mercury or any other planet or celestial body we might consider colonizing.
Colonization of the solar system is in no way an alternative to dealing with global warming. I can’t state this strong enough, as I keep seeing this misunderstanding pop up. The sheer cost of transporting billions of people to say Mars, to somehow save them from global warming would be astronomical. Not to mention the astronomical cost of building the colony itself, as everything has to be pressured and protected. You can’t just grow plants in the open.
So what Elon Musk is talking about is much more long term problems than our current predicament. Failing to solve global warming doesn’t doom us or the planet. We are mainly trying to avoid global warming because it sucks having millions of people affected by flooded coastal cities, and millions of people having to change their farming because the areas they use might not support the particular crops they used to grow.
Science and Research
It is not always obvious what the benefits of pure science is, as opposed to applied science. However it is often developments in pure science which eventually leads to the biggest improvements of society.
It is impossible to say what further discovery of our solar system will bring of advantages.
It is easy to think that whatever goes around in the cosmos has no bearing on our practical life on earth. However our first major and successful scientific theory, that of gravity, was made by Isaac Newton realizing that objects falling to the ground was related to the movements of planets around our solar system, through the same force: gravity. Newton’s mechanics undoubtedly had a huge impact on our technological progress and society.
There might be other mysteries we struggle to solve on earth, which could be solved more easily by seeking knowledge from outer space.