What Slate Readers Think About the New Space Race

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The long view.

Zoonar RF/thinkstock.com

Throughout March, we published articles about the new space race as part of our ongoing project Futurography, which introduces readers to a new technological or scientific topic each month. We’ve covered a range of issues, but we’re also interested in what you have to say, so we’ve written up the results of our survey on the topic. Meanwhile, Futurography continues with our April course on the synthetic biology.

There was no universal agreement between readers on the question of what space projects are most exciting. Many enthused about the prospect of getting humans to Mars, while others were more intrigued by sending a lander to Europa—and perhaps even searching for life there. Some emphasized targets that are a little closer to home, such as setting up a colony on the surface of the moon. And though most readers took the question seriously, one joked (we hope!) that “Sex with green women” was the real goal.

Regardless of where we’re headed—or what we’re trying to do when we get there—most thought that some combination of robotic and crewed missions would be ideal. “The robotic exploration of the solar system is an absolute triumph, as is the Hubble. But human travel to space is going to happen, and we should be doing it,” one wrote. A few, though, were skeptical, offering opinions such as, “What added value do humans in space bring? Humans in space is a circus sideshow.” Or, as another put it, we should hold off on human exploration until we’re ready for serious extra-planetary colonization efforts, since, “Just sending people up to orbit the Earth does nothing.”

That said, most agreed that “efforts like landing a human on Mars” had potentially important political ramifications. “The first humans on Mars will either be American or Chinese. The political impacts could be large,” one proposed. Others suggested that the public enthusiasm drilled up by a major space mission might be the most important element: “Without public involvement, the political capital required for an effective space program will evaporate in favor of more immediate terrestrial concerns.” But some were concerned that it might be dangerous to let nationalist interests drive efforts in space. One such respondent wrote, “I’d like to think it could be done apolitically. No one owns the moon; no one should own mars.”

Many readers seemed convinced that more economically driven endeavors such as asteroid mining could yield real results. Indeed, one optimistically predicted, “Asteroid miners will be the first trillionaires.” Others were skeptical, suggesting that it would be decades before we see any real results. Another mused, “With the tremendous cost of sending things into deep space, I don’t see how we could get a decent return on our investment.” And a few worried about the potential risks, asking, for example, “What happens if there is a glut of asteroid minerals that crashes the base metals markets to the point that it’s no longer profitable to launch rockets to mine asteroids?”

Readers were less divided on the question of new countries joining the space race, tending on the whole toward cautious optimism. While a few wrote that it was too early to say which efforts would be most successful, many singled out for praise projects underway in India and the United Arab Emirates. And others argued that it was good for any nation to give it a shot, since “new technology is always good for any country.” “These are very long gestation projects, so returns will take longer,” one wrote, and another suggested that they might be most effective “as incubators for high-tech engineering knowhow and carriers of national pride.” Even some of those who were unsure suggested that it might have merit, as did one who wrote, “[I]t’s a good thing to get everyone into the picture. Maybe that would be a first step towards a United Earth.”

Some of those who felt that less powerful nations shouldn’t be investing in space felt that these nations should instead be ceding the field to private companies. Indeed, many wrote that even NASA might need to take a backseat to commercial initiatives, though by-and-large they seemed to think that the future would entail a balance of public and private. “Governments have an important role to play in the future of space exploration, but it is a delicate role,” one said. Developing on a similar line of reasoning, another argued, “In particular, government space programs will provide the framework around which private space companies can build.” And as one more reader wrote, “[A]ll collaborative efforts are exciting including returning to the moon, going to Mars, and further studying the climatology of the home planet.”

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.