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Astronaut on Mars
Sending humans to Mars and other places in the solar system is one way to help unlock the potential of space, and of humanity. (credit: NASA)

Our potential in space

Is human spaceflight worth the investment? This question has been asked and answered many times within the long decades that man has been exploring space. Take Mars as an example. Speculation about lost “civilizations” and ancient canal builders filled the popular mindset until Mariner spacecraft revealed a lifeless barren world in the early 1960’s and debate has raged ever since about whether or not our destiny lies among the stars or should be abandoned. When we watched the shuttles Challenger and Columbia disintegrate into so many tragic pieces the question of why we should put humans into such environments rose painfully in our consciousness, and each time we asked, “Why put humans in space?” the answers that came back sounded less and less convincing.

We are told of the benefits and “spin-offs” from human space exploration but to most of us it means very little, and out of the several billion people living today less than a thousand have taken that journey into space and only 12 men have walked upon the surface of another world. The human exploration of space has been compared to the days of Columbus when explorers were out discovering new worlds, but space is not Earth. In space it is a hostile environment, deadly to all human life. There may be no alien natives out to attack us in space but there most certainly is an alien environment we must contend with.

We are told of the benefits and “spin-offs” from human space exploration but to most of us it means very little.

So why would humans want to explore or live in such places? The one argument that has often been glossed over or ignored is, in my opinion, the most important, and many others are beginning to see this. This motive for sending humans into space comes down to rediscovering the importance of realizing our potential as a people. If scientific discoveries and resource utilization or spin-offs are not enough to get our governments and businesses interested in investing more in space, perhaps it’s time to take a different approach.

It has been said that the three main motives for us going into space or accomplishing truly “grand” goals or any type are more often than not:

  1. National security
  2. Economics
  3. The praise of deity or royalty (or “glory” as it could be known).

So what has “potential” got to do with this? Potential is described as “capable of being but not yet in existence” and when we stretch our minds back over the pages of history we are able to bring into focus exactly what this means. At one time everything we have today, and the three benefits described above in the form of knowledge, discoveries, inventions, and human creations of every kind, was “not yet in existence”. Back in 1700 who could have imagined that 269 years later we would have humans walking upon the face of the Moon?

Go back further. In the midst of the Middle Ages, when plague was ravaging Europe, who could have imagined that a few centuries later we would be able to cure diseases like polio with a simple injection? Then think of how isolated and divided our world was in the area of communications for thousands of years until the invention of the telephone. As for flight, it was a dream—the stuff of myths—until two brothers with only high school educations and experience in a bicycle shop conquered its secrets on the windswept plains of Kitty Hawk.

Just as the Wright Brothers realized their potential in their efforts to create the first powered airplanes and just as explorers like Columbus realized their potential by sailing into the unknown and discovering new lands so it is with us today. As humans we are capable of greatness, mediocrity, or great evil. Our history bears witness to this. Greatness is when we do achieve our dreams. Greatness is when we learn by our mistakes and grow in positive new ways. It is something we should all aspire to.

On the diagram of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs” the area that covers potential is at the top, in the “self actualization” sector, and listening to the logic of his reasoning it sounds sensible that this “motive” or need comes after we first satisfy our more basic needs like food, shelter, and security, but this is where many in our modern world have misdiagnosed the importance of “self actualization”. Certainly it is logical to accept that needs of food, shelter, security, social relationships, etc are important and worth most of our attention, but the error, I think, is in “putting off” reaching for our dreams.

As a species, as nations, and as individuals, we all have great potential. We can overcome our baser instincts and we can achieve a better world. There are glimmers of that all through history, however brief. Devoting some of our time each day or week to the pursuit of our potential would change our world in the most positive of ways. An example of this can be seen in something as mundane as recycling. This is something individuals can do to protect the environment and also use our resources more wisely which helps to lesson the load of trash filling our dumps and creates a more responsible society.

When I think of what the colonization of space could achieve for us I only have to look at what we have achieved here on Earth to understand what could be our future in space.

So when it comes to potential yet to be realized, is one goal as good as another? Clearly not all goals are equal in their importance but subjects like the exploration and colonization of space deserve our attention in this context. As a species it represents our survival and our “propagation”, as Darwin put it. If Earth is wiped out we can continue our existence on new worlds if we do the hard things required to make our homes in such places. Or, we can let it all end with us and the grand experiment of life might get snuffed out. We have the potential to create new societies on new worlds where the alien environments will force people to create and cooperate like never before.

When I think of what the colonization of space could achieve for us I only have to look at what we have achieved here on Earth to understand what could be our future in space. Yes, we will always carry the negatives with us wherever we go. There will still be problems here on Earth as long as we exist, but growing onto new worlds and new horizons is in our genes. All societies that ceased to look outward have ceased to exist, from the records we have of great civilizations of the past. When apathy, internal politics, and agendas take over, that’s when we lose sight of our potential for greatness.

None of us knows the future, but if we rediscover the importance of striving towards greatness then our future will be one of progress, growth, and maturity as a people. Where are the pyramid builders of our age? Where are the great engineers and dreamers? Have we closed in on ourselves? Are we too scared of being seen as “crazy”? I get concerned at our future when all I see is young people aspiring for the next ringtone on their cell phone or for news of the latest celebrity scandal. Is this the future we want? A dumbed down world that has lost sight of its dreams?

Is reaching for our potential important? If reaching our potential involves personal enlightenment, a more advanced society, or goals that advance our world and improve our chances for growth and survival, then yes, potential is important and in fact is vital to our existence. In space there lies an unknown amount of knowledge, new discoveries and resources for us to explore, things that could solve some of our most intractable problems like resource wars, world poverty, environmental abuses and fossil fuel dependence. But we will never know what it has in store for us if we don’t give it our best shot, and currently most who understand the direction of space programs would agree that we could do better, much better.

The potential of space is as vast as our dreams and as endless as our imaginations.

Just as in our own personal life goals are important, so are larger society-based goals, whether it be to improve our education or health systems, to solve world poverty, conquer global warming, or build new infrastructure projects. Space is in this same category. It is a grand goal. It will require our very best and as it pushes us to our limits it will change us as people and as a society. Many astronauts returning from space have had their view of the fragility and uniqueness of Earth greatly enhanced and, in fact, some argue that the modern environmental movement was inspired by those first “Earthrise” pictures taken from the surface of the Moon. I believe that the more people we can get into space, the more we will learn to value our planet and the people on it, and this can only be a good thing.

The potential of space is as vast as our dreams and as endless as our imaginations. We can achieve the Moon, Mars, and more, and it will reflect a society that was able to look outward and to dream again. That is a society capable of many good things. Let’s get out there and bring forward the future we all hope for.