An interplanetary future favours the wealthy



In a ball of fire, Cassini's 20-year journey across the solar system came to an abrupt finale last week. This moment concluded 13 years of intense exploration of Saturn, and left us with further evidence that there are conditions to support life in parts of our solar system beyond Earth.

CassiniCassini was launched in 1997 as a collaboration between NASA, the Italian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency at a time when Saturn had only 12 known moons. The spacecraft's odyssey soon revealed not 12 but 62 moons orbiting the gas giant. The most significant of these is Titan, which harbours twice as much liquid water — considered to be essential to the existence of life — as Earth.

Meanwhile back on Earth, a drama less spectacular yet of dire consequence is unfolding. Keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius is proving to be an arduous task. Rising sea levels due to overpopulation and the burning of fossil fuels have already begun lapping at the doors of the poorest people in our world.

By the end of the decade, the nation of Kiribati will disappear into the ocean. Despite their pleas to the UN for international climate action, they are being ignored by world leaders through their soft-line approach to the burning of fossil fuels. The lack of binding policy, and commitment to global carbon offsets, has already previewed a future world that chooses convenience over charity, and luxury over compassion.

In the photographs taken by Cassini, Titan looks idyllic. It seems to have deep blue shadows, not unlike the rivers and shorelines found on Earth. While bathing in these lakes may still be a long way off for earthlings, scientists say it is no longer a question of if there is life in space, but when we will find it. So, when we do find conditions to support life in space, what will it mean for the future of humanity?

For years, the idea of humans in space has dominated science fiction. In fact many books and films such as Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar have raised the possibility of humans having to move to other parts of the galaxy in order to escape a dying planet. Life on other worlds is romanticised in Star Wars, where people trade, colonise and even conquer other planets.

This on-screen narrative isn't too far afield from the ambitions of some of the richest people on Earth today. Richard Branson, through Virgin Galactic, is offering 700 flights to space. The program admits that 'sending humans and satellites into space requires effort and money'. A lot of money. While the Virgin space program is meant to be promoting diversity, the citizen astronauts have already paid the company large deposits for an experience that is yet to be realised.

Virgin isn't alone in this endeavour. Tesla founder Elon Musk also has inter-planetary designs for the most affluent travellers in the world. The mission of his SpaceX project is to make humans a multi-planet species by building a self-sustaining city on Mars. Musk says: 'SpaceX is dramatically reducing the cost of access to space, the first step in making life on Mars a reality in our lifetime.'


"Perhaps we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves with the possibility of space travel, until we have exhausted every possibility to improve quality of life, of all people, on Earth."


But how accessible is such a journey ever likely to be? As of 2016, only about a quarter of the world's population has travelled on an airplane in their lifetime. That means that despite over one hundred years of commercial air travel, the luxury of flying from one place to another on the planet Earth — let alone to another planet — is out of reach for two billion people.

The end of Cassini's mission is only the beginning of more missions to navigate and locate conditions for life outside our own atmosphere. Yet space exploration is no longer just a scientific concern, but a humanitarian one. In the event of an evacuation from a dying planet Earth, it is all too clear who would be able to catch a flight to space and who would be left behind.

It is the behavior of humans and not nature that is causing irreversible damage to our planet. And it is the developing world that already is bearing the brunt of the catastrophic conditions that climate change induces. Perhaps we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves with the possibility of space travel, until we have exhausted every possibility to improve quality of life, of all people, on Earth.



Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers.

Topic tags: Francine Crimmins, space exploration, climate change



submit a comment

Existing comments

I'm sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree with this misguided notion that space travel is contrary to human interests and sustainable living on this planet. It is exactly the opposite. Energy resources on Earth are finite and limited. The Universe on the other hand offers practically unlimited amounts of energy. Why burn fossil fuels here on Earth and pollute the planet in the process, when you can tap into the energy resources that the Universe has to offer? Want an example? The Sun radiates such enormous amounts of energy every second, that if you can tap into just he 1% percent of that from space-based infrastructure, you can power the entire planet, even places where sunlight is scarce or weather conditions don't permit it. And that's just an example. Heavy industry should move off-Earth, out into space. In this sense, space travel is an act of caring of the Earth's biosphere. In the long run, there are really only two choices. Continue depleting our planet's own limited resources, pollute the environment while doing so, or utilize the unlimited resources that the rest of the Universe has to offer.
Leonidas | 19 September 2017

While it seems true that an interplanetary future will tend towards supporting the wealthy, this is not a reason to curtail it as the knowledge gained from such research, as is all knowledge, is in the interests of humanity as a whole. Never the less, I am not for a moment suggesting that we should not be doing our utmost to look after our own planet, and making the necessary personal sacrifices for the good of all.
John Whitehead | 20 September 2017

Anything new "favors" those who can afford it. How quickly the cost of travel drops is not a straight line, and is usually an inverted "S" curve, through competition. Until 1960 only a tiny fraction of the 25 percent mentioned could travel by air, but we passed the upper inflection point of aviation costsper seat mile soon after, and participation began to climb nicely. The same may happen faster with space travel, since it is able to open far more of the universe to us, giving more incentive to innovate. Innovation was cut off by government monopolies for the first 50 years of spaceflight, but that has now ended. How can you tell the lack of innovation? The disposable rocket (Soyuz) used to launch the first satellite is still a major launch vehicle! Once multiple groups with incentive to innovate have a generation to drop costs through innovation, the prices will start dropping fast. We can see the beginnings of that now. Meanwhile, the rich can be what they have always been, our guinea pigs for new things. The idea that rich people don't help poor people should have died in 1991, but hangs on through inertia.
Tom Billings | 20 September 2017

Kiribati is coral. Coral grows and shrinks. Measuring sea levels by reference to Kiribati is like a dressmaker who uses a tape measure that is made of elastic tape.
Jenny O'Rourke | 20 September 2017

The 'Kiribati problem' may not be as simple as Francine suggests, but nor is as simplistic as Jenny retorts. For a more nuanced view see < >. But the fact that sea levels are rising, and will continue to rise, is well documented and does not rely on what's happening to Kiribati.
Ginnger Meggs | 20 September 2017

This well-informed and perceptive article by Francine Crimmins may rile some of the 'gung-ho': "Off To Space We Go, We Go . ." gnomes. It's revealing to read the posts of Leonidas, John Whitehead, Tom Billings, and Jenny O'Rourke. These seem to lack reasoned responses to the points made in the informed investigative science journalism of Francine. Their 'space-is-our-future-like-it-or-not' slogan resembles the reaction of those whose income and/or status depends on the continued mega-funding of physics, astronomy, armaments-manufacture, and SF movie-making. It's wearing pretty thin! Quite literally, we're in danger of losing our lovely planet whilst lusting for the stars (aka the status/funds needed for a pretence of pioneering an ex-Earth human future). There are scientific reasons why this lust is for 'fool's gold' ('Humanitarian Cosmology' free on the web). Space 'conquest' also masquerades as the justification for 300 years of global destruction by WATIC (Western aggressive techno-industrial commerce). In the light of the preceding 50,000 years of ecologically-balanced human occupation of our beautiful Earth, WATIC has to be seen as the grossest metaphysical error imaginable, bar one. We've now more than enough knowledge - our current desperate need is for WISDOM (see 'The Anthropocene Misnomer' free on web).
Dr Marty Rice | 20 September 2017

"Perhaps we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves with the possibility of space travel, until we have exhausted every possibility to improve quality of life, of all people, on Earth." I agree 100% with you about this Francine. Thank you for the challenge you have set. It seems so wasteful spending money on space travel when millions on planet Earth are dying of hunger-related diseases and millions more live on less that $2 a day. The right focus would be to make life livable for every human being here before worrying about journeys into space.
robert van zetten | 20 September 2017

People who're still following this article and posts might be interested in Dr Linda Billings current paper: "Should Humans Colonize Other Planets? No" It can be found in the journal 'Theology and Science' 15 (3): 321-332, issued last month. Since 1983, Linda has worked in the space community and is a consultant to NASA's Astrobiology Program and Planetary Defence Coordination Office. Her paper provides much first-hand, professional information. It supports and extends the conclusions that Francine Crimmins arrived at. As Robert van Zetten posted, we really need to sort out the serious, chronic and wide-spread humanitarian issues on this planet before hugely investing our energies and resources in grandiose and very far-fetched plans to colonise other planets.
Dr Marty Rice | 26 September 2017

Titan doesn’t have oceans of water. The liquid on Titan is methane & other hydrocarbons. Enceladus does have liquid water, but under an outer crust of ice. Much of the data in relation to climate change & other environmental issues these days comes from satellites. The amount of money being spent on the worlds’ various space programs is minuscule in comparison to military spending or even what is spent on professional sport.
DougalLongfoot | 01 October 2017

Dear Dougal Longfoot, you might like to read the recent article by astrobiology-savvy Dr Linda Billings. It seems even one of the minor space-happy 'commercial' players is in receipt of over $1 billion in taxpayer's funds. The global tax funds invested in space ambitions are likely to total near a trillion dollars this year. But it's not just swallowing much of our social justice money. It's also grabbing many of the brightest minds and creative industries that could solve the world's problems and bring peace and health & prosperity to every person on planet Earth. What is our vision? Caring for dire human needs must be done right away. In contrast: there's literally no end to expensive space hobbies. Planets stars & galaxies can wait. They're not going to go away or die from neglect if we postpone space adventuring for a decade or so. History will judge our priorities. What do you think?
Dr Marty Rice | 03 October 2017

Anyone still interested might like to read a short summary in COSMOS magazine (6/11/2017) - describing the work of radiologist Dr Donna Roberts & her colleagues published in The New England Journal of Medicine. This research suggests the narrowing of the central sulcus in the brains of astronauts is evidence that, over time, microgravity causes a brain to shift upwards in the cranium. This creates greater pressure on its upper surface (the vertex), obstructs the normal flow of blood and the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes it & also causes the optic nerve inside the eye to swell, producing impaired vision – a disorder called papilledema, which has afflicted most astronauts who have spent some months in space. Roberts et al. conclude that prolonged periods without gravity are contraindicated by basic human physiology. We could not ask for a more graphic illustration that our main attention should be focussed on this lovely planet and on the needs of its millions of suffering people. It is for this and other reasons that sensible persons will conclude space colonization by humans is not where we should be investing our hopes and our resources. Moon colony = nonsense; Mars colony = nonsense.
Dr Marty Rice | 06 November 2017


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up