Exploring outer space represents the burning human desire for knowledge. Besides technology, it takes a dream, a vision, a lot of creativity, and last but not least, daring. These are the qualities that fuel our progress and make us human.
The momentous event came when the Apollo 8 astronauts beamed back the photos of earthrise in 1968 with the moon surface in the foreground. For the first time, we saw this beautiful blue planet from afar. It made a lasting impression all over the world. For the first time, we really thought that we were one despite all our differences, living on this magnificent spaceship alone but together. From then on, the idea of a global village began to crystallize. Environmental awareness took on a deeper meaning. Global warming could not have become more concrete now without the image of the blue planet.
Inspirational moments came and passed, but the mysteries of outer space continue to dazzle the world. Now we are faced with the real challenges of environmental pollution and sustainability. These include: depletion of natural resources, expensive energy, limited fresh water, degradation of the environment, and climate change that further aggravates existing conditions. What does outer space have to offer?
Besides uplifting the spirit, countless other benefits flow from the space program including advances in: atmospheric science, climatology, jet propulsion, guidance system, satellite imaging, wireless communication, composite materials, and electronic circuits and software. These spinoffs have dynamics of their own. The most obvious ones are global positioning system (GPS), and accurate weather forecast. You may also cite the Internet and the cell phone.
The technologies originating from the space program have already contributed to reducing our carbon footprint. Jet engines are more fuel-efficient nowadays. Composite materials are increasingly used in transport vehicles to reduce weight, notably the 787 aircraft. Electronic communications such as e-mails, teleconferencing, and digital records have saved fuels and time in addition to tons of paper. Solar panels were deployed in the first spacecraft even before oil prices shot up and carbon dioxide became a problem.
After reaching its peak in 1966 due to the moon program, the NASA budget has declined since then from 4.4 per cent of the US budget to about 0.48 per cent in 2012. Further cuts will seriously undermine our technological capability, especially in spinning off new industries. As we have seen, opening a research window in the space program leads to more windows being opened that will bring practical benefits to mankind.
Despite seemingly out of this world, space exploration enables us to answer the following important questions about planetary history that is relevant to the earth’s environment:
1. The evolution of planetary atmosphere and climate.
2. Water and its recycling when it existed on the surface.
3. The impacts of carbon dioxide and other gases.
4. The geology and its history.
5. The building blocks of life, if it existed.
6. Solar radiation and other cosmic events.
7. How to overcome the obstacles for eventual human landing or possible colonization (especially for Mars that resembles Earth in many ways).
One thing that continues to amaze me is that all the planets, stars and other bodies in the universe consist of the same family of elements listed in our periodic table, notably hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. Paradoxically, the earth and other heavenly bodies are disconnected and separated by extreme distances as far as light-years. Furthermore, the periodic table is a human invention based on the elements we’ve discovered on earth and nowhere else.
Why does such a commonality exist despite extreme disparities and great distances of separation? This simple reasoning confirms that the earth and the rest of the universe must have the same origin even though they have gone separate ways after the Big Bang that occurred some 14 billion years ago. All the heavenly bodies are in fact siblings going through different stages of development. This commonality means that exploring outer space enables us to understand where we came from and where we are heading. In this pursuit, we may be able to find a better solution to our pressing environmental problems.