By Mikhailangelo Panzo | February 27, 2021
There’s a high chance you are one of those who joined a trend and booked a ticket to Mars last year. Sadly (depending on how you see it), your name won’t be sent to the red planet until 2026. What then should you look out for? If you haven’t been reading international news, NASA’s new rover, Perseverance, had recently landed there. If you think that it’s just another expensive robot sent to a desert planet, know that it carried new advanced instruments that would test tools and help our goals of establishing the first colonies on Mars. Couple that with other nations like China and UAE joining in this new space race, it seems that we are close to seeing a feat in history: the first person to step on Mars, and possibly the first settlements.
This tremendous achievement is the talk of the town of almost all science news and space fan communities. The other hype right now is around NASA’s Artemis program and SpaceX’s Starship development. Remember people walking on the moon? The last to do it was around 40 years ago. It’s only this decade that NASA decided to send back people to the lunar surface after having enough budget and a solid long-term plan. Through the Artemis program, we are expecting to see humans on the moon by 2024. The things they’ll do there will be helpful for future colonization on Mars. SpaceX also has a mission on its own, as they are hard at work in the development of Starship. It’s a rocket that is designed to send people to Mars and be affordable enough for civilians to buy tickets and leave Earth. They are currently testing prototypes of the craft and performing RUDs (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly, the thing explodes). Their CEO said that they’ll send humans to Mars on this rocket as soon as 2024, which is quite ambitious, to be honest. Then again, it’s from the company that developed reusable rockets and tested flights frequently. They have poured a lot of money into these missions, but are they worth the attention despite the issues we are having right now?
Is the Money worth Spending?
If you look at the recent news and posts about the Perseverance landing, you would stumble across “critics” complaining about how such a massive amount of money is focused on a mission that seems to be irrelevant to our current crisis. The mission itself is expected to cost 2.7 billion dollars (around 130 billion pesos to put it in perspective). That amount of money would be more than enough to vaccinate all Filipinos. Of course, NASA is from another country, but the sentiment is still present among its citizens. Shouldn’t the money be placed towards more relevant issues?
There are valid reasons as to why this NASA exploration should not be considered as a wrong decision. The budget they have is less than one percent of the government’s overall spending, anyway. As for the private companies, it’s none of our business to tell what they should do. People complaining about space exploration right now might be the same as the people who were complaining about agriculture during the hunter-gatherer period, or those in 1902 who think automobiles aren’t worth it. Although these space missions wouldn’t solve relevant issues directly, it would be a poor decision if we delay this pursuit and be at the mercy of our current dilemmas with redundant solutions. There will always be a relevant issue, and we should at least think outside the box if we ever want to progress as a society. Overall, all of these mean that there is nothing wrong with a group of agencies and companies contributing to the pursuit of the space age, and there are other fields that are up for debate of whether or not their budget is worth having.
Well then, let’s assume that we fully agree with what these people are doing. A few years later, SpaceX and the other companies are starting to sell tickets to Mars. Should we let this industry boom? More importantly, what does this have to do with Filipinos?
Should we have Time to be Looking at Mars?
I spent the last couple of paragraphs enthusiastically chattering about something completely outside of what is considered relevant here in our country. Most Filipinos are not aware of the space industry, except when we occasionally hear of Filipino engineers in NASA and when they accidentally make a trend (we are the top country to book tickets to Mars on the next rover after all). What we should be aware of is how impactful it is for the space industry to enter the Philippines.
We are currently developing our own space agency. It’s somewhat small, but we are heading in the right direction. What are the chances that you didn’t know about Maya-2, our latest satellite, being launched in space recently? It was sent to the International Space Station last Sunday, and although it is nothing compared to other well-known satellites (sorry for being harsh on our pride), it’s a step closer to building our own rockets and missions to outer space. It’s in this part that we see the same thing that happened to the recent news of the Perseverance landing. Filipinos are mocking the efforts of our engineers, ridiculing the small size of the satellite (it is a 10cm-wide cube after all) and the budget it received. Moreover, some even went far and attacked space exploration as a whole, arguing that leaving Earth is immoral and that we should just focus on what we are dealing with right now.
We will be seeing the space industry booming in the next couple of years, whether we like it or not. It’s an unknown frontier (the reason why it’s called space exploration). There will be new issues arising, and we would most likely see it as problems stacking on top of each other. However, it’s also where we get to explore tons of solutions, perhaps more than the problems that we would get. It’s just a matter of perspective and how we approach it.
Remember Bill Gates talking about preparing for a pandemic on TED talk last 2015? I know, he saw it coming. What was more surprising is not that the problem is foreseeable, but that we had solutions ready all along. He saw the health field being vulnerable to a pandemic outbreak, but he also saw that the field is capable of preparing a system to prevent it. Our unsure and divided opinion on global health made us vulnerable to such events, and we did fall victim to it.
What I’ve been yattering about with space exploration is nothing more than just the awareness of the events we’ll be seeing in the next few years. What I’ve seen right now is how we’re not sure of the space industry. I’m not here to advocate for something, but just how we should acknowledge that we are heading in this direction. It’d be great that we would be resolute of what’s coming, and that we are prepared to accept what we should do when we reach the next point of history. By the time the path to Mars is open for us, we all know what it means to book a ticket to the red planet.