Monday, 8 August, 2022

How Far Should We Travel?

A K Ziauddin Ahmed

Our kind of humans of the homo sapiens species has been traveling for about 12,000 years. The journey began on foot then we learned to ride animals. Gradually we invented boats and ships, wheels and carts, motor vehicles and trains, and finally the aircraft.

Why do we travel? Probably the topmost objective of traveling is to go on a vacation - relax and enjoy leisure away from home. People travel around to see natural beauties and historical places, meet different cultures, taste different foods, and enjoy different amusements. People also travel for business - to buy and sell things and look for new opportunities. Ancient people traveled far and near to find better places for living and farming and discovering new resources.

Human travel has not remained limited to the surface of the earth. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin of the then USSR left the earth by a spaceship named Vostok 1. He returned safely after making a single orbit around the earth from space. Gagarin’s trip marked the beginning of travel beyond the surface of the earth.

We might have considered Gagarin’s space travel as an achievement of mankind. We the humans have traveled out of the earth!

Unfortunately, it didn’t go like that. In response to the USSR’s single orbit of the earth, American astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times in the following year. On May 25, 1961, US President John F. Kennedy declared at a joint session of Congress that before the end of the decade, the U.S. would land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. So, space travel was just a matter of competition between superpowers, not a thing of mankind!

On July 16, 1969, the US spaceship Apollo 11 was launched with three astronauts on board for travelling to the moon, 384,400 kilometers away from the earth. They reached the moon and on July 20, 1969, two of the astronauts landed on the moon’s surface. On July 24, the three astronauts came back to earth safely.

The competition continued with more countries joining the race and sending spacecraft further away from the earth.

The then USSR first landed unmanned spacecraft on the planet mars, over 213 million kilometers away from the earth, in 1971 followed by the USA in 1976 and China in 2021. Now the run for physically traveling to mars is on. NASA aims to land astronauts on Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s.

Nowadays we are seeing rich people’s space travels ranging from a few kilometers up the sky to about 420 kilometers above the earth to the international space station. Given the rivalry and contest for supremacy, the international space station (ISS) has been an exceptional instance of collaboration among nations for the exploration of space. Five space agencies from the USA, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada are participating in the ISS. However, the disintegration of this collaboration is looming on the horizon. would probably not continue. China is building its own space station which is expected to be completed this year. Soon we may see other countries following suit.

If space travel for reaching distant planets is meant to be human endeavors for exploring the space around the earth, then that should be a collective effort - all countries together, maybe under some United Nations project. And then questions like why and how far should we travel in space would need to be addressed. Because we have serious problems here on earth like climate change, overpopulation, poverty, pandemic, etc.

Suppose we are convinced that we need to invest in space missions to distant planets to find a place for human colonization then it implies that we will successfully make the earth uninhabitable and the human species will need to be rescued and relocated to another planet. Then the question arises whether it is ethical to allow this species who have already destroyed one planet to migrate to another and eventually destroy it too. Also, there would be numerous other questions like who will pay how much for this project, who will be the lucky people to be sent to the distant planets to start a new civilization, what will be the criteria for their selection, who will define the criteria, and so on.

Space exploration is costly. The collective expenditure on space programs by different countries must have exceeded a few trillion dollars by now. NASA alone has spent more than $900 billion till 2014 since its creation in 1958.

According to a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), global military spending in 2021 exceeded $2 trillion. And according to Statista, a database company headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, the global expenditure on space programs was more than $92 billion in the same year.

Just imagine how the world would have changed if that money were spent on building educational institutions, infrastructure, hospitals, factories, etc. wherever needed around the world!


The writer is a retired government officer and teacher