President Donald Trump announced his desire in 2018 to create a sixth branch of the U.S. military that he colloquially called the Space Force. Although Congress has yet to act on this desire to take the armed forces beyond the atmosphere of our planet, in February 2019, Trump signed Space Policy Directive 4 to have these forces organize underneath the umbrella of the U.S. Air Force.
The directive formally allows the Air Force to organize, train, and equip a corps of military space personnel for actions that take place in space. “Today I’m thrilled to sign a new order taking the next step to create the United States Space Force,” Trump said during the signing ceremony. “It’s so important. When you look at defense, when you look at all of the other aspects of where the world will be some day. I mean, this is the beginning. This is a very important process.”
The initial version of the Space Force will be overseen by a civilian undersecretary and a four-star general serving as the Chief of Staff. Although this structure is not as ambitious as having a separate branch of the military, space exploration experts feel like this is a step in the right direction.
The pros and cons of exploring space are complex simply because we have limited knowledge of what lies beyond our solar system. There are still mysteries to discover about our own planet! These are the key points to consider when we begin to look at what life might look like in the vastness of space.
List of the Pros of Space Exploration
1. It is an opportunity which is available to anyone.
If you have a telescope, then you have an opportunity to start exploring space. For more than 300 years, we have looked to the stars with this technology as a way to learn more about our planet and ourselves as a species. When the Hubble space telescope was launched in 1990, it gave us our first views without atmospheric interference on what the vastness of our universe was like.
With millions of images taken and tens of thousands of papers written based on the observations made from simple telescope technologies, we have learned more about the structure of our universe, its age, and the composition of our solar system in the last 20 years than our ancestors would have ever dreamed was possible.
2. It gives us an opportunity to foster genuine cooperation.
Because we are a world of nation states, the investments that we make in space exploration tend to have a patriotic feeling to them. Some efforts in this scientific area are still nationally-based, but for most projects there is a spirit of cooperation between the countries of the world who have made this realm of science a top priority. We work together as the human race to operate the international space station, fund research projects, and look outward beyond the stars to see what is there. It is one of the few areas in our lives today where we set aside our boundaries to work together toward a common good.
3. It is an effort which requires us to become innovative.
The 100-year Starship Program has the ultimate goal of creating a technology that will allow us to explore space. No idea is off-limits with this project. What we have found in our quest to achieve specific goals in this area of science is that there are numerous discoveries which become possible to improve our lives here at home. Everything from athletic shoes to water purification systems came about because of our push to look beyond our planet. By tackling the technological needs to stay safe in space, we can make life better for everyone down on our planet at the same time.
4. It is an opportunity to explore something new.
Although there are still regions of our planet that we rarely study because of technology limitations, the vastness of the universe is a much more significant prize. Only the Voyager spacecraft have gone beyond the first boundaries of our solar system. The information they provide us nearly four decades after their launch continues to enlighten our knowledge of the universe. There are so many unanswered questions when we think about space, especially now that scientists can determine which stars have planets orbiting around them.
Is there life somewhere else in the universe? If so, would those beings look like us? There are numerous technological barriers we must cross before we could travel for long distances in the vacuum of space, but we are getting one step closer every day.
5. It creates numerous employment opportunities in a variety of fields.
There are more than 18,000 people employed in the United States by NASA, along with countless contractors, freelancers, and specialists not counted in those figures. The private company SpaceX provides about 7,000 full-time high-skill positions that support the economy. Then there are the astronauts, engineers, and flight specialists who manage the actual mechanisms of space flight to consider.
Numerous indirect employment opportunities are possible because of our efforts at space exploration too. We need caterers, designers, nutritionists, personal trainers, astronomers, scientists, and many other positions to support these activities. Even though the budget for NASA is $21 billion for FY 2020, the economic returns can be five times greater because of these activities.
6. It allows us to understand our planet better.
When we can observe the full scale of our planet from a high orbital position, then we can see changes that are not always possible from the ground. It gives us a way to track the changes to our environment, study ozone depletion, and measure the impacts of a warming planet. We can provide accurate prediction models for weather patterns, observe troop movements, and install safety equipment that guards against an attack. When we take full advantage of this benefit, it becomes possible to create a place in the universe that is healthier for many years to come.
7. It gives us a new perspective on our place in the universe.
It took several centuries for the scientific world (back by religious zealots) to accept the fact that the Earth was not the center of the universe. When we saw that first picture from a distance of what our planet looks like from a distant point in our solar system, it became clear to see that a small, pale blue dot in the middle of the vastness of our universe puts our daily issues into a new perspective. Until we discover otherwise, this is the only home that we have. It is up to each of us to share resources, reduce conflict, and work toward a common good.
8. It allows us to identify potential dangers before they strike.
The asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars is only one source for these deadly rocks in our solar system. There may even be threats that travel through the universe to interact with our region of space from time-to-time. It would only take one significant impact to change life on our planet forever, which is why space exploration makes threat identification a top priority. If we can locate and move threatening asteroids or comets before they threaten an impact, we could stop the apocalypse before it ever gets a chance to begin.
9. It would give us access to new minerals, precious metals, and other useful items.
Thanks to the asteroids which occasionally make it to the surface of our planet, we know that many of them contain iron and carbon. We also know that there is nickel, cobalt, silicon, magnesium, calcium, and several other elements present. Some might have water or oxygen contained beneath their surface. There may even be gold, platinum, and other precious metals there. We might even discover something that we’ve never encountered before.
Space exploration gives us an opportunity to access new mineral resources, allowing for the privatization of this venture. It would also give us an opportunity to start building in space because the raw materials are easy to haul and transport.
10. It gives us an opportunity to see what lies beyond in the final frontier.
Unless circumstances change somehow, there will come a point in time when our species will outgrow our planet. We must begin to look for colonization opportunities in our solar system and beyond to help support the future of our race. As our scientific and technological discoveries begin to open up opportunities to visit distant stars, we can start to discover even more mysteries that will help us to answer the meaningful questions in life.
11. It could change our approach to medicine.
Discovering new organic elements in space could help us to discover cures for some of our worst diseases. We really don’t know what is possible in our universe beyond the scope of basic physics. There could be untold treasures just waiting beyond our solar system to discover. Although there is always an element of risk to any exploration venture, there are great rewards often waiting for those who embrace their courage to start pressing forward. At the rate of development that we’ve seen in the 21st century, we could be looking at a very different human race in our children’s lifetimes based on the possibilities of discovery.
List of the Cons of Space Exploration
1. It could cause us harm or provide harm to other species in space.
We know from experience what happens when one group of humans comes into contact with another group after generations of isolation. The diseases that transferred back and forth between Europe and the New World devastated some cultures. There were times that smallpox would kill over 90% of the local population by itself. If we encounter life on a different planet (or if they visit us), the threat of disease transmission is real. Their viruses, bacteria, and potentially unknown invaders could do as much damage to us as we could to do them. First contact would be an exciting experience, but it could also be a deadly one even though no one has any ill intent toward the other.
2. It creates high-level pollution events.
We must consume fossil fuels when we launch rockets into space, which means we’re creating a significant level of pollution every time we expend fuel for exploration purposes. Even on a light load, it costs about $300,000 to fuel a rocket. Larger models could hold a half-million gallons of fuel that would be used during an entire mission. That means we are creating roughly 4 million pounds of carbon pollution with every action that we take to reach space. Then we must find a way to place these fuels safely into orbit to make our exploration efforts useful, creating even further potential problems for our atmosphere.
3. It gives us more ways to be paranoid about what others are doing.
There are only five treaties which currently govern how we operate in space. Our original goal as the human race was to make it so that no one could claim a territory in orbit or our solar system that could give one nation a distinctive advantage. The creation of a Space Force could work to upset the balance that we’ve worked to create for the last 50 years. We’re already using satellites to spy on one another, monitor communications networks, and potentially target cities with weapons.
This paranoia will only increase as we push further into the stars. The only real solution to this disadvantage is to start thinking of ourselves as a planetary nation instead of one that is built on nation-states alone.
4. It will create a large amount of garbage that we must manage.
Did you know that NASA tracks over a half-million pieces of space junk that orbits our planet right now? Unless we physically remove these items in some way, this garbage will linger until it falls into our atmosphere to burn up. Every item we leave behind creates a future risk for someone else. If we are going to start exploring space, then we must begin to look at ways to clean up our act before we get going. It’s bad enough that we’ve polluted our oceans with microplastics. Should a spaceship encounter that debris, it could be a deadly experience.
5. it may cause our planet to face unknown perils.
A common theme in many science-fiction novels, shows, and movies is the idea that an alien race is hostile towards us. It is widely believed that water may be one of the scarcest commodities in the universe, but here we are with a planet that is more than 70% water. If we start venturing out beyond our solar system, it is entirely possible that we could encounter a species who decides that our resources are ripe for the taking. We assume that an advanced culture who could invent real-time space travel would be peaceful, but there are no guarantees. Exploring space could become an invitation for interstellar war.
6. It will always entail risk.
Human beings were not meant to be in the vacuum of space. We must wear extensive protective gear to survive those conditions. Even one small leak or crack in a helmet or suit would be enough to create an adverse health condition. This issue applies to the planetary environments which we know of right now as well. Then there are the health issues to consider when the human body experiences a lack of gravity for an extended time.
NASA studied identical twins Scott and Mark Kelly when Scott took a long trip to space. Scientists monitored their bodies to see how being in a weightless environment could change the physical chemistry of a person. They discovered that genomic instability occurs, including gene expression changes, and spending a year in that environment caused a thickening of the carotid artery, DNA damage, and reduced cognitive abilities.
7. It is expensive to start exploring space.
Even though the budget for NASA has not changed that much in recent years, we are spending about $200 billion per decade on our current space exploration efforts. Privatization of the industry has helped to reduce some costs, especially as SpaceX continues to work on a recoverable rocket. When you add in the costs from other countries and their space programs, our planet spends about $60 billion per year on this effort. In comparison, the United Nations suggests that it would only take half of that amount to end global hunger permanently. Should exploring space be our top priority if we’re struggling to take care of ourselves here at home?
When we examine these space exploration pros and cons, there is a certain nobleness to the idea of seeking what lies beyond the next horizon. Our society was built on the desire to explore the planet where we live. Now our culture has the itch to start pushing beyond the next boundary. Whether that means we colonize the moon, establish a community on Mars, or push toward Alpha Centauri, there is something waiting to be discovered. We’re closer than ever before to finding out what that might be.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.