The 50th anniversary of the first moon landing last Saturday was universally celebrated as representative of progress and scientific grandeur. Newspapers highlighted the difficulty of the mission, the fact that it almost failed and some even made an effort to re-inscribe women into its history by highlighting the important work of female computers in calculating the necessary mathematic equations.
While it is an amazing and still somewhat unimaginable feat, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing should not be a cause for celebration.
Since the first successful orbital launch of the Soviet Sputnik I in 1957 and the first successful manned spaceflight in 1961, space is no longer something only to be looked at through a telescope, something remote and unobtainable. Space and its planets now seem closer than ever. While it is natural that humans should be interested in space and given the technology should try and explore it as far as they can, it also reflects a worrying trend of carelessness and arrogance with how we care for our planet and the spaces we inhabit.
The modern world is virtually built on satellites. They monitor weather, wildfires, volcanoes, the oceans, provide the necessary communication tools for telephones, TV and navigation systems and they can warn us of approaching asteroids and other natural disasters. But, since the first satellites have been deployed into space there has also been an ever-increasing accumulation of space waste orbiting the earth in a cloud somewhat similar to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but in outer space and consisting of metal rather than plastic.
It is estimated that there are around 6,5000 tonnes of space waste currently orbiting the earth, made up from out-of-date satellites, screwdrivers, bits of metal and other spacecraft building materials. While these can be dangerous for satellites and manned spaceships, the chance that they impact us on earth is incredibly low, as most bits will burn up when entering the atmosphere.
Nonetheless, this is no reason to ignore this problem. In fact the increased accumulation of space waste mirrors the carelessness with which we humans have already treated our earth for decades, emptying between 1.51 and 2.41 million tons of garbage into our oceans ever year, damaging it almost irreparably by CO2 emission, threatening the existence of uncountable species as well as our own chances of survival.
The ignorance with which space waste has accumulated reflects how we treat our planet and now also outer space, as if it was solely ours and made so that we could exploit it until destruction. Ideas such as using Mars’s fertile soil to cultivate plants, mining the moon for iron, nickel or cobalt, as well as gases such as ammonia, nitrogen and hydrogen are frequent and becoming more and more realistic. Beyond that there has long been the fascination not only with offering commercial space flights (for those who can pay the price) but also about re-populating to a new planet after we have made our own Earth uninhabitable.
It is exactly this thinking which is worrying. If we cannot treat our own planet good enough to ensure our own survival, how can we guarantee that we will not destroy the next planet chosen for the lucky few to begin a new life there. Space is not our play-toy, it is not something we control but something that controls us and we should not be so naïve to think that we can out-smart it. Rather than thinking about ways to outsource production, to mine planets for minerals and to find new inhabitable spaces for humans, we should focus on saving the planet that we already have. We do not know what happens to the universe as a system when we populate other planets, use their resources or continue to fill outer space with waste; it is something we should not experiment with lightly.
Space is fascinating, and it is only natural that we should want to know about its ins-and-outs. The moon landing was an amazing feat, which deserves to be celebrated for its scientific achievements. Yet it was also the beginning of human destruction of the space in which we exist. If we cannot take care of the planet to which we belong, we should not be so arrogant to think that we can do it any better anywhere else.