It is impossible that you missed it, but just in case: Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX, launched the Falcon Heavy on Tuesday.
It was popular on social media because a car was on board the rocket and is currently being sent towards Mars. So there is now a Tesla with the message, “Don’t panic!” — a reference to Musk’s favourite series of books, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ — written on the dashboard somewhere above our heads.
“What was the goal of this stunt?” you might wonder. Well, this kind of launch was not seen in the US since the 60s, and Elon has the ambition to send humans to Mars as soon as possible. Thus, this is the beginning of a new space age for humanity. It’s just that this time there isn’t any, you know, ominous threat of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation lingering in the background.
But telling this story in the wrong way makes for some easy criticism. We can either frame what happened as a small — and fun — step towards the exploration of space by humanity, or as the crazy idea of a billionaire spending $90m to launch a $100,000 car in space.
You might have heard this argument before. It goes like this: “There are too many problems to be dealt with on Earth to care about space, and space exploration costs a lot of money that should be used somewhere else.”
Musk’s actions have been faced with criticism, as expected. In an article for The Guardian, for example, Nathan Robinson has argued that it would be better if we first dealt with the issue of poverty before spending $90m to launch a car into space and that the launch was indefensible.
At first sight, this criticism seems eminently plausible. It is surely morally superior to give $90m to charity than to launch a sports car towards Mars — just as it is better that you give £10 to a charity monthly rather than spending it on a Netflix subscription.
But still, I think it is important to keep two things in mind when thinking about space exploration.
First, this argument misses an important point. A lot of the technology that was first developed during the space race is now used elsewhere. You could make the further argument that though the technology did not decrease inequalities, it surely allowed a lot of people to live better lives.
My second point is a bit more philosophical. While there are countless examples of rich people doing useless things that cost a lot of money — just look at how much the current US president’s luxurious lifestyle is costing his taxpayers — going after Elon Musk and space exploration doesn’t seem like the right fight to pick, not least because of the wealth of alternative targets. Space itself, and what its exploration could mean to humanity, is important enough to keep it as a moral goal at all times, if it is possible to do so.
In Isaac Asimov’s short story, ‘The Last Question’, he touches upon the idea that, even if there is good to be done in the world, there is a simple fact that we should, in the long run, always keep in mind that the resources and energy of our solar system aren’t inexhaustible. Thus, exploring space is giving hope to humanity as a whole that, in the long and distant future, we will be able to keep progressing, as a species, for as long as possible.
And after all, it is surely worth trying to keep humanity alive, even after we run out of resources on Earth, and space exploration is the only way to have a chance of achieving that.
Now, all this may seem a little distant from a billionaire launching a car into space. But this is not the only thing the launch was about. It was also proof that humans, after years of technological stagnation when it comes to space travel, are able to dream once again about the great beyond. Space exploration gives us hope that there is something bigger to reach for that could offer answers to the deepest of our philosophical questions.
It is also very possible that this car launch was humanity’s peak — perhaps we’ll never reach Mars, and are doomed to die on Earth. But if launching a Tesla into space was a step towards knowing avoiding this gloomy fate, it was well worth it.
In the long run, if it keeps up its current rates of progression, space exploration can be justified and be a legitimate goal of humanity. Many others activities of the top 1 per cent of the population perhaps less so. Let’s pick the right fight.