Space Exploration Isn’t Just About Science

If India or China beats the U.S. to Mars, it will feel like a military defeat.

NASA artwork of Rover leaving lander
Artwork of the Mars Rover leaving its lander.


On Wednesday, March 8, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will host an event in Washington called “Will Collaboration or Competition Propel Humans to Mars and Beyond?” For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

When young Charles Darwin stepped onto the Beagle, he wasn’t planning to gather data for science, eventually changing the way humans view life. He had been a mediocre student in school and simply was hired on to be the gentleman companion of the captain. The main purpose of the Beagle’s voyage was to survey and produce better maps for trade.

Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, and everyone else who tried to find the Indies were doing so for trade and national expansion. Sure, they stumbled upon parts of North America and a lot of other handy things and places along the way, but those “discoveries” were accidents. Sir Francis Drake, John Cabot, and everyone else who tried to find the Northwest Passage were also doing so for trade and national expansion. They also discovered a lot of science along the way, but not by primary purpose.

We often connect exploration with discovery; unexplored wilderness; new understanding; data; and, of course, science. But science has seldom been the motivator for exploration. Science has been an add-on until very recently, when inquiry and wealth and an interesting twist in perception has made science appear to lead expeditions, at least in space. All our robotic missions beyond our planet appear to be motivated by scientific discovery. We plan our mission to Europa to discover whether life has arisen there. We send rovers to Mars to look for water and the potential for life. We seek scientific answers.

Or do we?

At core, robotic space exploration is more for inspiration than it is for science. Orbiters, landers, and rovers inspire people to dream and to take bigger steps in their own lives. More practically, robotic missions are preparation for human missions. We Americans pay for NASA willingly because we are inspired and proud of our national achievements and technological wonders.

And although robotic space exploration is inspiring, human space exploration is far more personal, far more narrative, filled with more relatable challenge and risk. Human space exploration is a way for nations to flex their muscles and compete without having to resort to war. It’s our substitute for mutual assured destruction, and that has not changed since the Cold War. (Thankfully, it is an uplifting and constructive substitute.)

Americans have been thrilled by our Apollo successes. For 47 years, we have been the only nation to put a person on another celestial body, and we have been resting on that glory all that time. But that is about to change. The Chinese have an ambitious, progressive plan for landers, humans, and finally a colony on the moon. Multiple private companies, from the United States, India, and elsewhere, have lunar plans. What is going to happen to the American psyche when the Chinese, the Indians, and the European Union put people on the moon, and we are no longer the only ones? How will we react if other nations beat us to Mars?

After the Apollo era, we let the technology that enabled travel to the moon go out of production, in particular the Saturn V, the huge rocket needed to lift the big loads. Not until 2004 did that change, when President Bush announced we were going back to the moon, as a stepping stone for Mars. We began to build the Ares I and V rockets to enable those big launches. But then that program, in whole called Constellation, was canceled in 2010.

Next, also in 2010, the NASA Authorization Act laid out a plan to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s. NASA, the science community, and the aerospace engineering powerhouses jumped on this new vision and began work. The graphic designers outdid themselves with inspirational timelines and visions of transport and habitation.

And now the Trump administration says we are going back to the moon … perhaps helped by some increasingly influential and inspirational private companies, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital, Blue Origin, Bigelow, and the like.

But wait! Where are we going? The moon, asteroids, Mars, space stations? What are we really striving for? If we can’t commit to one human exploration target in our solar system, then we must conclude that there is no single overriding purpose compelling humanity to reach one celestial target over another. Yet we feel compelled. Science, clearly, is not the driving impulse. Not even commerce is driving it, despite speculation about riches in asteroids.

Having no consistent target means that the going is the point, not the getting there. And if making the journey itself is the point, then the purpose is showing courage and innovation and being first and fastest and best—in short, it’s a competition. Human space exploration is about national greatness as compared to other nations.  We’re still firmly in the Cold War mindset.

When other countries succeed, then, rather than joining together in a positive view of human progress, we will feel that we have failed, and we may be angry and bitter—and dangerous.

One concrete solution is not to fail, that we as a nation need to go to the moon and to Mars.

And another solution is to collaborate. Imagine the Americans, from NASA and SpaceX and other private organizations, and the Chinese, and the Indians, and the Russians, and the European Union, are all living in nonstandardized modules at some “safe” distance from one another on Mars. Would they want to stay apart in such an extreme environment, or would they want to communicate and collaborate (even if that’s not the case back on Earth)?

Let’s not just hope for collaboration. Let’s take more and better steps now to create and foster a space collaboration. We can make private-public space partnerships easier, including those that cross national borders. We can work harder at the international meetings on space topics to create multinational collaborative bodies. We can work harder at developing globally beneficial international standards.

Exploration started out about nations and wealth. Space exploration could be about more—it could be about our species. When we go to Mars—it will happen—let’s make sure it is a step deeper into human civilization as we do it.

This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.