Disclaimer: I wrote this in January 2019.
Getting off planet Earth, whether it be to Mars or elsewhere is perhaps the greatest thing humanity will ever do. It will surpass the invention of fire, the written word, and the internet.
When we establish the first colony on Mars or elsewhere, it will be the first time that the entire past, present and future of humanity cannot be wiped out in a single catastrophic event.
Should we fail to leave the planet, the chances that our species dies on Earth is 100%, given enough time.
No other existential threat which humans face (climate change, artificial intelligence, nuclear war) can so totally destroy us as those faced from the universe itself.
When considering catastrophic world-ending cosmic events, from the guaranteed (asteroid impacts, mass coronal ejections), to the not-guaranteed-but-still-very-scary (gamma bursts, vacuum decay), the question is not if, but rather when we will be eradicated.
If we are to survive as a species on any kind of longterm scale, truly begin the arduous climb up Kardashev’s divine staircase we need to get off this planet.
Nothing else matters, in the long term. Our species will not survive if we do not get off this planet.
Everyone and everything you care about will cease to be.
This does not mean that there are no other concerns to take into account. Caring is not mutually exclusive. We can as people care about more than one thing at once.
Climate change will wreak havoc, and make the 2015 migrant crisis look like Black Friday.
Artificial Intelligence (even if it falls short of accidentally killing us all in pursuit of some goal) will put millions of people out of work, and cause mass disruption if we don’t get our shit together and preempt it with intelligent policy.
The rise of autocracies such as China coupled with the rise of far-right sentiment in the wake of the aforementioned migrant crisis are both difficult issues that will need to be dealt with.
Islamic extremism and the fundamental threat to the West that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran pose to the democratic world will need to be overcome through a war of ideas, if not a war of bodies.
The mass die off of flora and fauna is concerning (also climate change related, who knew).
The threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea should not be casually dismissed.
Russia’s meddling in Western affairs and seeming willingness to make land grabs is not a good sign, nor is the West’s inability to back up their ‘Red Line’ comments in Syria, and defend ‘Western values’.
All of these issues however, will not matter at all if a comet slams into the Earth tomorrow. Everyone you know (and maybe love), will be incinerated if they’re lucky, and starve to death if not.
There will be no voices, no music, and no beauty. There will be no art, no charity, and no love. There will be no political disputes, no disagreements, no conversations, because everyone will be dead.
To anyone who thinks that we should be “focusing on other issues” — you’re right, we should. But we should be focusing on them in addition to focusing on space travel.
“But one third of the world still lives in poverty!” — yes, and if you truly care about your fellow humans then you might consider also that the entire world will perish if something cosmically bad happens tomorrow, and that the extinction of our species is entirely preventable.
“But humans are destroying the Earth!” — yes, we are. Putting aside the tragedy of the commons guarantees and the inherent lie that “Every little helps” (it doesn’t — nothing you ever do to offset your carbon emissions will have any effect compared to the massive pollution from industry), wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a backup Earth?
“But we need to fund the military!” — yes, but do they really need so much? US military hegemony is already so far ahead of the rest of the world that I don’t think it’s so unthinkable to want to re-allocate those funds towards literally saving humanity. If you really care about ‘national security’ then you should be funneling money into Artificial Intelligence so that China doesn’t become the new global superpower in the coming century. Even from a purely selfish point of view, establishing a US colony on Mars would protect the future of the US, allowing it to continue beyond a catastrophic event such as a comet impact or the inevitable eruption of Yellowstone.
“But Trump!” — really?
I feel that this is an education problem, as most things are. We are not taught to care about the stars and our place among them. We’re not taught to wonder at the night sky and the endless possibility it holds. Instead, we’re told to worry about lines in the dirt and to be wary of those different from ourselves.
This lack of education seeps into our political discourse and so we end up in a situation where 0.47% of the US federal budget of $3.98 trillion (with a T) is spent on NASA and space exploration more generally. That is fucking pathetic.
To spend so much on so little and so little on space exploration is akin to saying “We know we’re going to jump out of this plane and don’t have a parachute, but it’s okay because we have cruise missiles.”
As such, through no fault of their own, the good folks at NASA (and to a lesser extent, the ESA) have had significant difficulty in advancing us towards any useful planetary exodus since 1969. Instead, it has been left to private companies to get us off the planet.
Of course, most prominent of these is SpaceX, due in no small part to its larger-than-life CEO Elon Musk.
For all Musk’s foibles, he is certainly doing more for humanity than the vast majority of people before him, and certainly more than the hordes of Twitter troglodytes and media mafioso who condemn him.
Obviously Musk is not single-handedly building and launching rockets. He did (among other things) however start a (thus far) successful private rocket company, and he does act as an inspiration and motivational impetus for thousands of employees whose sole mission is to get humanity to Mars. What have you done? How have you contributed to the future of humanity today?
Without Musk, SpaceX will fail. Without SpaceX, humanity will fail.