I recently re-watched an old Stargate SG-1 episode showing enemy spaceships en route to attacking Earth. Our human heroes – who are on one of those spaceships too because they were able to use the Stargate they had found on Earth – find unexpected help from an ally, who is convinced that Earth will send its own battleships to meet the enemy. Colonel O’Neill reminds him, in best Richard Dean Anderson sarcastic deadpan delivery, that Earth only has Space Shuttles, intimating they are not quite the formidable force his friend would expect them to be. In the end, the shuttle Endeavor does lend a helping hand, but Earth is only saved because humanity stumbled upon alien Stargate technology and has been able to cheat itself into becoming a spacefaring species.
While I am not expecting an imminent alien attack, the episodes still left me dismayed. Currently, we do not even have an active space shuttle program anymore. Private enterprise (thankfully!) is pushing the limits, but some of that seems to be focused on bringing former fictional starship captains towards the edge of space. William Shatner was finally given a chance to at least get a glimpse of what his alter ego had been traversing on a comparatively giant, powerful and convenient starship. In real life, Elon Musk’s aspirationally named Starship-1 rocket just exploded in mid-air a few weeks ago.
At least industry leaders like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – and certainly, all their employees and the employees of space programs around the world like NASA, ESA, CNSA and Roscosmos – have understood that Earth is not the final frontier, space is. Furthermore: expanding into space is not optional but mandatory.
And yet, we are currently not headed even close towards where science fiction hopes we should be. There are good reasons for that. We are only beginning to understand what our current spaceflight technology does to the human body (and it is not good). We do not have advanced propulsion systems. Our second space station, ISS, is heading towards a similar fate as the pioneering Soviet MIR station. We have not been back to the Moon, are planning for Mars, but so far, everything looks, shall I say, very experimental.
And of course, there are the usual detractors. Do we not have enough problems on Earth? Yes, we do, and we will always have them without a greater vision. Should we really plan for leaving Earth, should we not fix climate change first? We certainly need to fix climate change as no one is planning to relocate billions of people to other planets even in the foreseeable future. That would be difficult even under Star Trek conditions. Why should we think about leaving Earth when Mars doesn’t even have a breathable atmosphere? No one is forcing anyone to leave. I certainly wouldn’t mind a stroll in a space suit at the footsteps of Mount Olympus on Mars, or overlooking the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon, but it won’t happen in my lifetime at the current pace.
There are many others who have this dream. Rather than to complain that we have been born centuries too early, we should redouble our work to at least make it happen for future generations.
But this is not merely about tourism.
During Russia’s war against Ukraine, the International Space Station is still a place for peaceful cooperation. These kinds of common projects are needed to remind ourselves that the only path forward is together – notwithstanding the problems of today. Spaceflight and Space Exploration by their very nature require functioning international cooperation. While they will not be able – on their own – to secure the peace (as we are witnessing currently), they are still ongoing reminders that we need to think beyond our disagreements, that a long-term perspective and the bigger picture can work to discipline us to at least in some areas be able to tame our own darkest desires. Russia needs us, and we need Russia, so no matter what Putin’s government is doing today, we cannot completely give up on each other in the future. We need to extend these cooperations to include China, India, Japan, and other spacefaring nations – as we already do with Russia and the EU – to leverage our strengths and at least beyond Earth create a common future.
Our current orbital successes have provided us with usable technological successes such as global positioning systems like GPS, Galileo or Glonass, which we are all using on our phones without thinking that it needed spaceflight and satellites for this to happen. The fight against climate change would be nearly impossible without satellites monitoring our planet. The technological and economic benefits of further space exploration and colonization will allow us to eventually mine unpopulated asteroids instead of ravaging the fragile biosphere of Earth, and to gain advantages from scientific discoveries which we cannot even yet imagine.
For this to happen, we cannot just see space as an engineering or science project. Questions pertaining to the use of space require political, social and cultural frameworks that need to be prepared as soon as possible – ideally, before problems arise. Who owns the moon? Who owns Mars? Do we allow nation states to extend their borders to other planets, moons or asteroids? Do we allow corporations to drive colonization – just like we allowed that to happen on Earth, thinking of the British East India company, for instance? What role will artificial intelligence play in spaceflight? What happens if we do encounter life out there – even if it is not what we would call sentient? We just sent a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which under its ice shield harbors an ocean which may contain life. We already need to make sure not to pollute Mars with whatever organic material may have stuck to our rovers and other scientific equipment. We also need to make sure to not contaminate Earth with what they might bring back.
Science Fiction has played through quite a few of these scenarios already. The arts can take a major role in our imagining of possibilities, both good and bad. In real life, there do not seem to be any Stargates, and luckily so far, no attacking alien spaceships. That should not stop us from looking for the real discoveries out there, to eventually benefit us down here.