What does space travel have to do with making the Earth a better place? A lot more than you might think. In Greens in Space, I lay out just why space exploration is so important to the long-term environmental agenda. I've returned to the topic a few times in the subsequent months, and while not every reader is convinced, I still strongly believe that we have a much better chance of understanding and repairing the damage done to the planetary ecosystem in part through the wise use of space exploration.
Over the past few decades, notions of environmental sustainability moved from a focus on cleaning up pollution to a focus on understanding (and, where needed, responding to) global environmental systems. Picking up litter and reducing smog are easy concepts to understand; the dynamics between climate cycles, insolation, CO2 emissions from natural and artificial sources, and solar cycles are a bit more complex. Simply put, we can't understand the details of how our environment functions without a better understanding of the larger environment in which our planet exists, along with additional examples of planetary development. Turning our backs on space exploration means cutting ourselves off from a wealth of potentially-critical knowledge about our planet and solar system.
Space exploration also allows us to move manufacturing into an area where pollution doesn't disrupt a biosphere. Imagine being able to mine asteroids for raw materials instead of cutting off mountaintops and scooping out the insides? What about beaming solar energy from satellites made out of lunar or asteroidal materials down to the Earth? Not to mention the capabilty of launching nuclear waste into the sun.
Space isn't just a place to go look around in; it's got enough resources to support 100 trillion people.
Very long term, expansion into space promises that planetary disruptions need not mean the end of our culture - or even at the extreme extinction.
This called not putting all of your eggs in the same basket. Can someone elighten me as to why this is not THE benefit pushing expansion into space? It's not as if we don't have the evidence of other extinction events to look at.
Only after we know more about the oceans or the core of our own planet than we do about outer space. Or how about first spending a NASA-sized budget learning from the traditional knowledge and different ways of perceiving and understanding of indigenous poeples? Some of their oldest mythodologies have correlations with modern science.
The commander of recent space shuttle mission observed how fragile and damaged Earth looked from outer space, said we need to take better care. It would be interestign to know more about what the space trip observed about ecological damage. (The irony is fantastic: how many tonnes of GHG's to lead up to and support one space mission?)
Jamais' article, and Bruce Sterling's ideas about space exploration quoted in a user comment, really raise the question of if and how one would create a green space program, rather than whether we should or shouldn't have one. I would like to think there are probably some compelling reasons for a space program that sends more and better probes around and beyond the solar system, as well as more sophisticated satellites observing earth, space telescopes, etc. (if for no other reason than what they are finding is so interesting). The arguments for sending humans into space in the near future seem much thinner, and to the extent to which the colonization of space is seen as a way of dodging the challenge of creating a human society that can live within its means on this planet, it is an unwelcome distraction from the project at hand. Yes, if we could produce the mountains of disposable consumer goods we currently consume by mining asteroids and then dropping them onto the planet, we might not need to tear down mountains for their minerals, but we would still create mountain-sized landfills to bury all the trash. A cradle to cradle, fully recyclable or compostable industrial economy is a much more elegant solution to the same problem.
I think there is something to the 'all the eggs in one basket' argument, although if an asteroid were to hit the earth and wipe out all non-microbial life, it feels like cold comfort to think that some colony of humans might still exist after everyone on earth and almost all of its amazing biodiversity was wiped out; perhaps more could, and should, be done to protect the earth from such an event. A defense system against planetary catastrophes also need not involve humans in space; it might better be accomplished with sophisticated machines.
That said, I agree with the comment that there are ample knowledge frontiers here on earth that space exploration won't help us understand any better; we still don't really understand the complex workings of this planet's atmosphere or its biosphere, not to mention our own bodies and minds, and human structures and institutions. The worldchanging category "To Know it for the First Time" is spot on; we are mucking with all sorts of amazing complexity without much of a clue at all what we are doing, and sending humans into space probably won't really change that.
the benifit of space exploration is not "understanding and repairing the damage done to the planetary ecosystem". the planet can do this on it's own in a few geological eons.
It is about understanding how we as humans need to behave if we are to have a future here.
And, behaving as we are now, we won't have an opportunity to evolve into a space-faring/exploiting race.