Let’s take a lesson from sci-fi: space is dangerous

Reagan Stanchfield, page editor

Although he’s most known as the mastermind behind Tesla and the focal point in memes, Elon Musk is also heavily involved in space travel. Musk’s company SpaceX has ambitious plans to develop a colony on Mars, making humans a multiplanetary species. However, our steadily progressing interest in space travel illuminates several serious concerns regarding the effects of human presence in space, including pollution, the hazardous progression of interplanetary meddling, and the astronomical costs. 

During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, people displayed an instinctual drive for wealth, destroying the environment in the process. Based on the current increasing privatization of space exploration, there is an imminent risk that humans could destroy interplanetary ecosystems, just as they have exploited the terrestrial environment in the past.

Already, the National Geographic reports that an accumulation of satellite debris is forming in Earth’s atmosphere. While the article criticizes this “space junk” as a problem for launching future satellites into space, I believe that the growing presence of debris in the atmosphere raises a more pressing concern: the negligence surrounding minimizing impacts on the environment. If those involved in designing, manufacturing, and launching satellites are allowed to amass debris in the atmosphere, what will prevent corporations from bringing the pollution plaguing Earth, and now its atmosphere, to other planets?

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and wealthiest man alive, has another potentially harmful goal for space travel—mining. On the Blue Origin website, one of Bezos’ companies, he credits the “unlimited resources and energy” of space with opening the door to opportunities for economic development and technological innovations, which he compares to the advancements of the Industrial Revolution. An article from BBC’s Science Focus Magazine mentions that potential mining destinations include the Moon, Jupiter, near-Earth asteroids, and the Asteroid Belt. 

The prospect of mining and potentially destroying these nearby environments reveals another issue with space travel: the aggrandizement of human entitlement and ego. Already humans disregard maintaining the environmental integrity of their home planet, one that they share with millions of other species, causing rapid climate change and the looming threat of mass extinction. 

Although arguments can be made that mining in space alleviates the strain on our limited supply of terrestrial resources and prevents the harmful practices of mining fossil fuels on Earth, this viewpoint minimizes the concern over the effects on the other planets. The geocentric philosophy of mining outside of Earth for our benefit will lead to the brutal and destructive exploitation of the solar system. 

Rather than learning from our mistakes in ignoring the limits of resources and measures to prevent ecological degradation on Earth, plans to expand mining to an extraterrestrial scope are only inflating the problem. Blue Origin’s goal to exploit these resources normalizes the idea of maintaining unsustainable economic and industrial growth while disregarding ecological conservation. 

In context with the impending threat of space warfare, reliance on raw materials from unstable sources is irresponsible. According to Politico, the United States already relies too heavily on its space and military advantages, and with the rise of China and Russia into the forefront of technological innovation, warfare in space is approaching. President Donald Trump has mentioned creating an extension of the U.S. military dedicated to extraterrestrial combat, what he calls a “space force.”

The modern competition for dominating space is eerily similar to the Space Race of the Cold War. Although countries remain invested in the intense nationalism of space travel, the rivalry between Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origins, driven by the possibility of cosmic profits, ties in a new aspect of the Cold War tensions: excessive economic risk.

Space travel, especially through the lens of its economic and social drawbacks, is incredibly expensive. For instance, according to the Planetary Society, NASA’s annual budget hovers just above 20 billion dollars, 45 percent of which goes toward human space flight. In comparison to the United States government’s other spending, NASA’s budget is not a substantial sum of money. However, it is still money spent on the prospect of resource exploitation and fantasy that could easily be destroyed or rendered inaccessible at the advent of a hostile conflict in space.  

Therefore, when it comes to the unknowns of space, we need to reflect on our history before allowing our insatiable desire for conquest to drive society toward the unrealistic fantasy of grand space exploration.