The Case for Space

Jackson Stephens, Staff Editor

The year is 2036. Your family has booked a month-long trip to Mars to visit your aunt and uncle during the holiday season. As you walk towards the landing pad where your starship is being prepared, your father sarcastically complains that when he was a kid, you had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a one-way ticket to another planet. Now, interplanetary travel costs less than a plane ticket to Hawaii did 15 years ago. However, things didn’t always used to be this way.

It all started on September 28, 2008. Elon Musk’s space transportation company, SpaceX, became the first private company to develop and launch a completely liquid-fueled rocket into orbit. The rocket, christened Falcon 1, was retired a year later after its fifth flight, where it carried a Malaysian imaging satellite into orbit. SpaceX currently uses the Falcon 9 rocket.

Since that time, SpaceX has advanced spaceflight tremendously by successfully developing and testing self-landing reusable boosters and becoming the first private company to dock a shuttle with the ISS that could support a crew. Most recently, they launched a shuttle complete with a full crew into orbital flight.

Musk, however, is not the only billionaire with starry eyes. Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin developed and tested the reusable New Shepherd booster successfully and has started sending small crews of people to space in a capsule aboard the booster in recent weeks. Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that focuses on developing craft capable of suborbital flights, became the first private company to send a civilian to space when founder Richard Branson and three of his employees flew on the VSS Unity 50 miles above the surface of the Earth

These three men have large stakes in the commercial spaceflight industry and all of them have had successful passenger missions in the last few years. Most notably, Blue Origin sent William Shatner of Star Trek fame into space for a brief period of time. When Shatner returned to Earth, he gave an impromptu but moving speech about what it was like to take a ride to space and how he foresaw commercial spaceflight becoming a larger part of our lives.

Unfortunately, this project has some opponents. One such opponent is the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, who told BBC that “We’ve seen everyone trying to get space tourism going … we need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.” He went on to say that he wanted to leave a legacy of preservation for not just his children, but children all over the world.

While the Duke’s fear of Earth becoming irreparable has some merit, halting all spaceflight until Earth begins the recovery process is not a solution. Prince William’s condemnation is flawed for one reason: Earth is quickly approaching its carrying capacity, the maximum number of organisms the planet can support.

According to the UN, the world’s population will surpass 8 billion by 2023 and eclipse 9 billion within 20 years. The issue with this statistic is that while the population may be increasing, the amount of habitable land isn’t. This means that people will have to become very friendly with their neighbors unless a solution is found.

Thankfully, commercial spaceflight might just be the resolution to our conundrum. If private space companies can find a way to ferry people and supplies to and from habitable worlds, the strain on Earth’s resources can be greatly reduced. The decreased number of people on Earth would mean a lessened strain on resources and would provide an opportunity for people to spread out more; new neighborhoods could plot larger tracts of land for each house, providing children with a larger place to play outside and explore the natural world.

A goal of commercial spaceflight is to make sending large numbers of people and supplies cheap. If this technology could be developed, space exploration could accelerate drastically. Instead of waiting years to get a budget for a space mission to be approved by Congress, space agencies could contract the work out to one of the companies mentioned earlier and launch multiple probes in a year, dramatically increasing our level of knowledge about the universe. It also provides a way for new habitable planets to be discovered, allowing the human race to spread out even further.

Despite all the benefits commercial spaceflight could grant us, it doesn’t allow us to forget about Earth either. Earth needs to be preserved for a multitude of reasons, but the primary motivations are that people will continue to inhabit the planet while others voyage to the stars and because Earth represents our genesis. Future generations will look back on the first people to spring off this rock floating through the black depths of space, united in an effort to preserve humanity and to expand our knowledge of the unknown.

What’s even more interesting is that we don’t need billions of dollars to save our planet. All it takes is one person setting an example by taking those three extra seconds to throw your plastic trash away in the recycle bin instead of the trash can. Others will notice and follow your lead, resulting in a happier planet and a happier society.