How Space Exploration Can Teach Us to Preserve All Life on Earth

We can’t run away from our problems

While space offers a new perspective on Earth and its problems, space scientists cautioned against the common viewpoint that other planets can offer refuge if Earth becomes untenable for human existence.

That’s the wrong approach, according to some. “We are not going to fix any of the problems that we have on Earth by going to Mars,” Cabrol said. “If we are not capable of understanding our problems here on Earth,” she said, “we are just going to transfer this mentality onto another planet.” (Rand added that such projects would almost certainly perpetuate the same power relationships and inequities that have shaped terrestrial societies for millennia.)

And fleeing is particularly risky given how grim life on another planet is likely to be for the foreseeable future. “Maybe what Mars is going to give us is a consciousness of how beautiful, precious, fragile Earth is.” Cabrol said. “We should not use planetary exploration as an escape.”

That isn’t to say there’s nothing space can offer us when it comes to solving our problems, Cabrol said. She said that one of the gifts of planetary exploration is that it puts new challenges in our path and forces us to solve them promptly, creatively and often remotely. That’s the sort of skill with obvious implications for life on a fast-changing Earth.

And if we continue to lose biodiversity here on Earth, space exploration may slip out of reach, Rummel said, as species losses ripple through food webs and cause accelerating change. “The very basis of the economies and support systems on the Earth that allow us to envision going elsewhere with both robots and people, those are the things that are in jeopardy.” He points to the host of ecosystem services we rely on without blinking an eye, from insects that pollinate crops to plants that filter air and soil that retains stormwater.

The same is true of climate change, which is raising temperatures and strengthening storms around the world. NASA satellites have spent the week monitoring Hurricane Florence and a host of other tropical storms that will leave death and destruction in their wakes — and one of which has also delayed a cargo launch to the International Space Station. Last year’s hurricanes Irma and Harvey damaged Kennedy Space Center and shuttered Johnson Space Center.

But biodiversity loss and climate change are both massive, incremental, depressing problems — precisely the sort of challenge humans hate to tackle. “Innovation is sexy and fixing things that already exist that can be repaired is not,” Rand said. “It’s much more fun and glitzy to imagine trying to build something new in a new place.”

But here, the history of space exploration may be able to offer a more productive mindset, despite the temptation of looking to the next horizon and the next mission. NASA has a long track record of extending missions and reprogramming damaged telescopes or robots already at work. Perhaps those examples, coupled with the nitty-gritty data and big-picture views that the agency offers of our home planet, can teach us to embrace a culture of conservation.

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