By Isobel Clark
The newest endeavour from NASA to discover more about our solar system hit headlines last month as their new Mars rover, Perseverance, successfully landed on the Red planet. Scientists and space fanatics all over the world have celebrated this historic opportunity to determine whether or not there was ever life on Mars.
While the possibility of one day inhabiting Mars is filling newspapers across the world, it really does beg the question: what about life on Earth? Why are we pouring money, time and resources into searching for signs of life on a different planet when, on our own overheating planet, we are losing millions of people every year to preventable causes?
According to NASA, Perseverance is currently searching for any signs of ancient microbial life and is aiming to test oxygen production on Mars’ atmosphere. This is in the hope that “someday” human life can be sustained on Mars. But human life cannot even be sustained on Earth. In the past hour approximately 700 children under the age of 15 have died of preventable causes.
While NASA has gathered some of the world’s best scientists to focus purely on the mission to Mars, their time could have been spent developing new and innovative solutions to current global issues. An invention for water conservation is essential right now and although NASA can’t even put an approximate date on when humans might be able to inhabit Mars, the space mission is being prioritised, using up some of the best scientific brains in the world and a huge amount of money and resources.
And then we get to the exact figures. Since 1975 $16.1 billion has been spent on exploration on Mars. Two out of three child deaths are avoidable and approximately $2.3 billion dollars can save 2.3 million lives. If the money spent on the Mars missions alone had been redirected, millions of lives could have been saved. Natural disasters are occurring more frequently and more severely due to climate change.
The news generally only acknowledges deaths directly from the disaster and tends to ignore the millions who die of poverty-related issues much later. For example, the deaths caused directly by the 2010 Haiti earthquake were tragically inevitable, but the millions who died in the following years due to poverty were preventable, had funding been directed towards the problem.
To make matters worse, space investigation is becoming more and more privatised, aided by celebrities such as Elon Musk with SpaceX, the company which was founded with the hope of helping to create a human colony in space. By privatising space travel, even more money is pooled into it. Private firms tend to ignore social costs and are commonly self-serving. If space research is meant to be bettering public life through greater public knowledge then should it not be taking into account public interests? This is exactly what privatisation does not do. It favours only those who can pay to receive the benefits.
The environmental costs of space missions are equally immense. Rocket launches have a huge carbon footprint from the amount of fossil fuels needed to propel an object into space. The new phenomenon of space junk is similarly worrying. The new idea of space tourism, insisted on by private companies such as SpaceX, could have devastating a environmental impact purely for the pleasure of the global elite. The Mars mission is urging on those who are demanding space tourism. Furthermore, it already has its own massive carbon footprint to add to the overall environmental impacts.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to expressly hate on NASA. I wholly recognise that the work they have done over the years has transformed lives for so many. Space travel has given us life-changing innovations such as GPS, accurate weather prediction and a greater understanding of how to prevent the damaging effects of UV light as just a few examples. However, this Mars mission is not aiming to change our lives with inventions such as these. NASA states that Perseverance’s mission is to search for signs that Mars could ever have been inhabited. It will also gather some samples of rock and soil and store them in Mars. These samples may never make it to Earth. Yet the environmental damage from this one mission alone is immense.
Every Mars mission since 1975 has essentially been looking into whether one day humans can inhabit the planet. Scientists call this having a “back-up” human colony who, in the event of us irrevocably destroying Earth, will be able to keep humanity going. By focusing so many of our resources on the “back-up plan”, we are able to conveniently ignore the fact we are rapidly destroying Earth through global warming. In fact, we have already so successfully destroyed this planet that we think it is okay to infect a different one once we have discarded Earth.
Space travel is certainly essential to our lives as we live them today. I do not deny that. Nonetheless, this particular mission has stuck in my throat for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps it is the extensive, overwhelmingly positive news coverage it has received while far more newsworthy stories are being ignored.
Or perhaps it is the billions upon billions of dollars that have been poured into the Mars missions, along with the brilliant scientists whose time has also been taken, all of which could have prevented millions of deaths here on our own planet due to poverty and climate change. The privatisation of space travel is furthering the problem as inevitably even more resources will be poured into further research.
I can see a future in which I will support space travel and explorations on Mars whole-heartedly. But I will only support them when the appropriate amount of money and time is spent on finding solutions to the millions of preventable deaths we face every year and once we have truly invested everything we have into the preservation of our Earth.
Illustration by Nicole Wu.