I will never forget the sunset when I first saw the solar system with my naked eyes. I was standing on the deck of a boat plodding slowly through the Nile River, closer to Sudan than to the Mediterranean Sea. I had not yet seen the Egyptian night sky, so I was excited to be so far south, with so much unlit desert on either side.
As a result, I was early. The Sun was still illuminating the western horizon. I didn’t plan it that way, but it was too bright to see the stars, yet dark enough to see the Moon and the gleaming dots of Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. As it dawned on me that I was seeing five distant planets at once, it dawned on me also that they were all in a perfectly straight line across the sky, perpendicular to the Earthly horizon that tells us we are standing up straight and balanced. All of a sudden, I wasn’t standing on a boat. I was falling face-forward and down the side of the Earth, an incomprehensibly large sphere suspended in an invisible flat disk of planets surrounding a star.
Our animal eyes can observe planets, stars, and even the heart of our galaxy as much as they can observe mountaintops or ocean waves. It is a reminder that our natural habitat on Earth requires at least three separate planetary bodies. The Sun’s light and heat make the Earth habitable. So does the Moon, through gravitational stabilization of the Earth’s tilt and rotation, which keeps the days 24 hours long and the seasons regular and mild. Perhaps the Earth is not our natural habitat, but only a part of it.
This poses an existential problem because it means we cannot think of ourselves as only a terrestrial species. We rightly believe that we must take care of our natural environment. But drawing the border of our natural environment at the Earth’s atmosphere is only a convention. This boundary helps us feel like we are masters of our fate, since our economic and technological capacity to affect the Earth is currently far greater than our capacity to affect the rest of the solar system, let alone the cosmos. If we are not only a terrestrial species, then what are we?
Since the nineteenth century, we have known that the Earth is not the world, but an infinitesimal part of it. The combined knowledge and power of humanity, therefore, extends only to an infinitesimal part of the world, with the rest a seemingly infinite mystery. Perhaps the most common response to this is to throw up one’s hands and say that this has shown humanity is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. But this is not a way to incorporate the scale of the cosmos into our understanding of humanity, but a denial of the importance of humanity altogether.
It was only in the twentieth century that this view came to predominate, as we grew wary of nuclear apocalypse and fretted over mishandling an Earth we felt was already trampled beneath our feet. The Copernican Revolution in the sixteenth century began as a triumph of human experimentation and observation over handed-down knowledge. In the eighteenth century, Voltaire was already prophesying universal man, truly at the scale of the universe. In the nineteenth century, the cosmos was taken to mean a wealth of resources and knowledge to use in the inevitable future when we conquered even this otherworldly part of nature.
An unresolved existential problem became a political one. A theory of human beings as irrelevant, confined and small in time and space, results in political systems that seek to keep human beings small. The byproduct is the ascendancy of alternative ideological projects like “degrowth,” which seek to put humans back in their place as minor fauna, or like summoning an artificial superintelligence that will either drive us to extinction or, with luck, keep us around as tiny pets.
The scale of the cosmos has not shown that we are irrelevant, but that we simply do not know enough about the world to know our relationship to it. As a species, most of our greatest philosophers, intellectuals, and spiritual leaders lived before the Space Age. Their answers to the questions posed by the cosmos reflected the state of their scientific knowledge, which was, in fact, more advanced than we typically assume. But they ultimately lived in a terrestrial world. Since men first walked on the Moon in 1969, we have not.
To have a flourishing future as a civilization, we have no choice but to resolve the anthropological problem posed by space: what it means to be human will be ultimately determined by how we respond to the question of space, which will itself determine how we organize our societies. To ignore this question is also to ignore an already integral part of human nature—we are de facto already a space-faring animal, the only such animal on this planet. Moreover, this question cannot be answered through philosophy alone, because space is not abstract, but physical and full of surprises. The only way to answer it is empirical: to explore space ourselves.
To complete our understanding of humanity, there are no alternatives to a spacefaring future to the limits of the known universe. Until that time, our book on what humanity is must continue to have blank pages to write on, with room to revise our ideas in light of the natural revelation of the universe. From where we sit today, space will thus twice transform what it means to be human. First, because of what we find—or do not find—among the stars. Second, because the economic, organizational, and technological challenges required to reach the stars at all will require us to alter our social, political, and moral structures.
To Explore Space Is To Transform Humanity
Today, we usually reverse this entailment, with the exploration of space justified on economic, diplomatic, or scientific grounds. For example, NASA’s own literature argues that the agency grows the economy, fosters international cooperation, and drives innovations that improve daily life. Technologies like rockets and satellites have always helped build and use more powerful weapons, so there is also a military justification. But while these are all useful side effects of space exploration, they fall short of a justification for space exploration in and of itself.
In the popular imagination, the Space Age is closely associated with America’s era of consumer prosperity since the 1950s. Accomplishments in space are taken as the results of a wider and inevitable trend of economic growth, technological progress, and eventual world peace led by the United States. Alongside images of the Statue of Liberty and cattle ranchers on the Great Plains, the last page of every U.S. passport shows a space probe floating past the Moon into deep space. If space exploration is inevitable, then perhaps it needs no justification. But what if space exploration wasn’t an inevitable side effect of progress, but instead driven by dedicated, exceptional individuals with mystical beliefs?
In fact, the modern idea of space exploration and—importantly—the technology to make it happen emerged from the era of war, revolution, and economic misery of the early twentieth century, especially in Germany and the Soviet Union. Three men independently derived the equation describing how a rocket can escape the Earth’s gravity: the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903, the American Robert Goddard in 1912, and the German Hermann Oberth in 1920.
While he launched the first-ever liquid-fueled rocket in Massachusetts in 1926, the more reclusive Goddard never inspired a wider community of practice in his home country. Both Tsiolkovsky and Oberth did. From the 1920s to the 1930s, a generation of amateur rocket scientists and enthusiasts in Europe conducted the formative research and experimentation that, within a few decades of starting from nothing, would result in arsenals of thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and launches of both men and machines to other planets. Among these enthusiasts were the young future heads of both the U.S. and Soviet space programs: Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, respectively.
Although they would later gain government patronage by building missiles, the first rocketeers were fanatically motivated, almost without exception, by the prospect of space exploration. For von Braun, it began when, as an adolescent, he read Hermann Oberth’s 1923 book The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space, which argued that space travel was feasible with rockets. Full of mathematical equations and dry technical language, a colleague of Oberth’s later quipped that the book “might as well have been printed in Sumerian characters.” The book nonetheless also persuaded the Austrian science writer Max Valier and the German university student Willy Ley, both of whom resolved to help Oberth popularize this dense but groundbreaking work.
In 1927, Oberth, Valier, Ley, and a few other German space enthusiasts founded the “Society for Space Travel” to raise funds for rocketry experiments and promote the idea of space exploration. Collaborating with Opel, the car company, they launched the first German liquid-propellant rocket in 1929. In 1930, a determined, eighteen-year-old von Braun sought out and joined the society. According to a history of space travel that von Braun co-authored late in his life, “virtually all of the civilian experimenters and promoters were much more interested in what the rocket could do, theoretically at least, to further their dreams of visiting the Moon and planets, than in rocketry itself.”
In the Soviet Union, Sergei Korolev met the Russian space evangelist Fridrikh Tsander that same year. Korolev was then a newly-graduated “aeromechanical” engineer working on military aircraft. Tsander, six years earlier, had founded the “Society for the Study of Interplanetary Communications” in Moscow. An early devotee of both Oberth and Tsiolkovsky, Tsander named his two children “Mercury” and “Astra” and greeted his colleagues with “Onward to Mars!” Korolev joined Tsander to found an amateur rocketry organization in 1931. By 1932, Korolev was leading the group. In 1933, they successfully launched the first Soviet liquid-propellant rocket. Celebrating, Korolev wrote in a flier that “Soviet rockets must conquer space!”
The interest in rocketry and spaceflight was not recreational. Nor was it military, though both amateur rocket organizations would be directly adopted into the R&D programs of the German and Soviet militaries. Rather, while their exact ideas differed widely, the rocketeers themselves all strongly believed that space travel would fundamentally transform humanity’s conception of itself and its place in the universe, necessarily transforming the future of human civilization to come. Space travel was a means to revolutionize not only economics or government, but humanity itself.
Tsiolkovsky, for example, purportedly said he only studied rocketry to assist his philosophical research. He believed that humanity was destined to expand throughout the cosmos, where life without gravity would allow us to evolve into a more perfect form, including by having much larger brains. He believed the existence of extraterrestrial life was axiomatically true and, moreover, that they were probably smarter than us, who are like “dogs and monkeys.” His sixteen-point plan for space exploration began with designing rocket planes and ended with “achievement of individual and social perfection,” followed by interstellar colonization when the Sun begins to die in the distant future.
For Tsiolkovsky, an atheist and communist, the universe was strictly material. Humans were simply “marionettes, mechanical puppets” of the universe, but every atom was “alive.” He imagined living beings on the Moon and on asteroids, with humanity as but one of many manifestations of a single universal life. He wrote in 1911 that “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.” Tsiolkovsky would be read not just in Russia by Tsander, Korolev, and their future colleagues in the Soviet space program, but also by Wernher von Braun.
The Germans had their own ideas. In 1924, Oberth and Valier were exchanging letters, trying to figure out how to get to space. The first step, they agreed, was the publication of Oberth’s work in a form accessible to the layman. If it became popular, funds could be raised to build a rocket. Listing the key topics he would cover in his next book, Oberth noted the expected points on rocket physics and the speculative habitability of other planets. Point five, however, included “is there a soul,” “the enigma of the universe,” “mechanical effects for the phenomena of consciousness,” “telepathy,” “why do all religions locate the seat of the good angels up above,” “the fiasco of the religions of revelation,” and “parapsychologic experiments beyond the atmosphere of the Earth.”
Finishing this list, Oberth correctly noted that “one must think a great deal here,” if one “does not want to be immediately torn into one thousand shreds by uncomplimentary criticism.” In reply, Valier wisely advised Oberth to “dismiss your point five and all other delicate points without fail” if he wished to be taken seriously.
Whether fortunately or unfortunately, it seems that Oberth heeded this advice. His next major work in 1929, Ways to Spaceflight, did not mention any of these “delicate” topics. But in a brief section discussing the reasons to explore Mars, Oberth—managing to cite both of the impenetrable German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Oswald Spengler—launched into an extended explanation of his “fundamental condition for human intelligence,” defined as acquiring rather than inheriting knowledge. He reasoned that, given the rarity of this quality among the animals of Earth, “it is highly improbable that this property should repeat itself anywhere else in the cosmos.” In contrast to Tsiolkovsky, Oberth imagined humanity as a uniquely intelligent animal in the universe, much as we are on the Earth itself.
Valier, for his part, was not trying to rain on Oberth’s parade. He wrote to Oberth that “what bids me personally to support your invention of the rocket” was to prove or disprove the pseudoscientific theory of glacial cosmogony, or the “world ice theory,” in which he strongly believed. This theory posited that, among other things, the asteroids, the Moon, and even the Milky Way galaxy were made of ice. The icy Moon periodically crashed into the Earth, which is what happened in the Biblical flood and was, furthermore, responsible for the destruction of Atlantis. For Valier, the new theory “means a new vision of the world and a new philosophy of life.” Valier’s advice to Oberth, it seems, was purely for PR reasons.
Willy Ley wrote in 1944 that the “great dream” of space travel was “philosophic wonder whether the Earth, and humanity on it, are alone in the universe or whether there are other earths with other humanities.” Ley would later become one of von Braun’s key allies in popularizing the nascent space program in the United States through articles, lectures, books, and, with the help of none other than Walt Disney, films and television programs too.
At its core, the appeal of the ambition to explore space was not scientific, economic, military, or technological, or even just ambition for its own glorious sake. Rather, the first rocketeers had existential questions or anthropological visions, which they were convinced could be answered or manifested, respectively, through the exploration of space. Despite a diversity of views on what space might mean for humanity, they shared a conviction to discover the answer empirically with rocketry.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Wernher von Braun wrote his one and only novel, Project Mars, about a near-future expedition to the Red Planet that discovers friendly, subterranean Martians from a dying civilization. In the book’s preface, he noted his intention was to “offer opportunities for ruminative philosophical reflection.” One of the main characters in the story addresses the future world government to argue for funding a Mars mission. He says “rocket scientists” were not motivated by the desire to build weapons, but “animated by secret visions of reaching into the heavens, of bringing their fellow men closer to what all our primitive ancestors felt was the outward manifestation of the Deity, and which was by them so worshiped.”
Speaking through his fictional characters, von Braun saw the rationale for space travel as fundamentally mystical and religious. He dismissed the arguments that great explorers or inventors throughout history were motivated by economic goals, but rather by “some mystic longing” and the “divine urge.” In von Braun’s telling, the arrival of human beings on Mars was, to the dying Martians, “but final confirmation of the universally held, deep, religious conviction that God had created Man in His own image, wherever Man was to be found.” It is humans who have “brought together the germ plasms of rational creation in our solar system that they may thrive and grow into a higher and more noble organism, which shall envelope the depths of space.”
The man who put Americans on the Moon was not overly concerned with whether space travel would create more jobs or lead to better consumer goods. Instead, he evidently believed that God himself had endorsed space colonization as the destiny of humanity, where, out there among the stars, we would no less than encounter our fellow believers. His character concludes a speech: “Only through God has the door to our neighbors in space been opened! Shall we slam it in His face?”
Why Space Still Holds Mysteries
Out of at least 100,000,000,000 stars in the Milky Way, we have begun to explore only 1. We essentially rely on two technologies to reduce this ignorance: telescopes and rockets. Both face severe limitations in gaining meaningful information about the cosmos. The sheer vastness of space is by far the most significant limitation because it divides all space ambitions into interplanetary ones that can be accomplished within our own solar system and those that require interstellar travel to other stars. Even with roughly existing technology, we could conceivably send humans to the outer reaches of the solar system and back within one lifetime. A trip to Mars, for example, would take a couple of years.
But the star system nearest to ours, Alpha Centauri, is four light-years away—four times the distance that light, the fastest known thing in the universe, travels in one year. The fastest spacecraft we have ever launched into space would take 18,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. The Milky Way is 100,000 light-years in diameter. Even if we could travel close to the speed of light, we would only ever cover a tiny fraction of the galaxy in one lifetime. It isn’t all bad news. There are roughly two thousand stars within fifty light-years of Earth. But right now, telescopes are somewhat more informative than rockets, since the light of even unfathomably distant stars has already traveled the distance.
If you try to stargaze during a full moon, you will discover that the light pollution from the Moon makes it impossible to see most stars. We have a similar problem with our view of the cosmos from even the dark places in our solar system: we can’t see anything because it’s all obscured by starlight, which makes it nearly impossible for us to see the relatively tiny and dim planets orbiting them. Our telescopes can easily observe stars and galaxies because they are so big and bright. But humans will never walk on stars or galaxies. We will walk on planets. The most pressing anthropological questions will be resolved at human scale, not galactic scale. For example, whether or not other habitable planets, extraterrestrial life, or alien civilizations exist, and what their exact nature is, are questions that are not likely to be answered satisfactorily without the ability to survey planets and planet-sized objects, whether from near or afar.
Since the 1990s, we have discovered thousands of planets outside the solar system. The dominant technique is called transit photometry. Simplified, a telescope observes a star until a planet passes in front of it, dimming the star’s brightness slightly. Observing the dimming, we can infer a planet exists. This technique has a big advantage: it also allows us to guess the temperature and atmospheric composition of the planet, two of the key factors for human habitability. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, launched in 2021, has already been able to rule out the habitability of some planets this way.
One problem with transit photometry is that it can only observe planets in the direct line of sight between Earth and a far-away star. But the bigger problem is that, like all our techniques, it is indirect. The sizes, temperatures, orbits, and presumed atmospheres of extrasolar planets are important information. But such information about planet Earth would yield a very small proportion of all information about Earth that is relevant to humanity. It is useful to narrow down, through exclusion, the candidates for human-habitable planets in the galaxy. But we cannot use it to confirm habitability beyond reasonable doubt, nor does it tell us anything meaningful about the uninhabitable planets.
Temperature and atmosphere readings are meaningful only because we have a theory of life, based on our experience on Earth, that tells us life requires a certain temperature and atmosphere. But we have no experience of extraterrestrial life. Moreover, we know that our direct experience of the universe amounts to less than one out of billions of stars in our galaxy alone. The weight of our direct experience compared to the weight of our known ignorance should mean that, by default, we treat any thesis about the cosmos as effectively baseless speculation.
We are rather prone to do the opposite. For decades, large telescopes like the now-decommissioned Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have been used to try to detect radio or laser transmissions from intelligent aliens. The search remains unsuccessful. The Fermi paradox asks why, if the stars and planets are so visibly numerous, we have not yet found convincing evidence of other advanced civilizations in the universe. The logical chain of reasoning in the Fermi paradox yields a universe replete with Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life, that has mysteriously failed to produce enough intelligent alien civilizations for at least one to be detected in a century. But this assumes far too much about the cosmos based only on the experiences of a single planet in a single solar system.
We have so little hard evidence about the cosmos that we can’t even say with confidence that other habitable planets exist anywhere else at all, let alone assume what the character and development of alien life, if it even exists, would be. If these assumptions are in fact grossly unjustified by default, due to the unfavorable balance of given evidence compared to potential evidence, then it is not a paradox that we must resolve, but a profound ignorance that we must illuminate. How do we know that contemporary cosmology is not, in fact, as wrong as geocentrism was before Copernicus?
Unable to overcome hard physical challenges, our ability to generate new and increasingly esoteric theories has far outpaced our ability to actually collect physical evidence from the universe. Our stance towards space, in both theory and practice, has then not been the ideal program for understanding our place in the cosmos, but rather cope for being unable to send people and probes to conduct human’s-eye view space empiricism in the field. What we are lacking is empirical science that goes out to collect evidence on which to base theories, rather than creating more elaborate theories to fit the scattershot evidence that we have and which we know is woefully insufficient. Any serious program of space exploration must always begin on the basis that the ultimate goal is interstellar travel to visit and survey extrasolar planets, no matter how hard that might be.
Whether through gigantic telescopes, robotic probes, or manned missions, such surveying will not merely incrementally advance the progress of natural science, but will tremendously strengthen or weaken all human theories, arguments, ideologies, beliefs, and visions of the future. If we find habitable planets with life chemically compatible with our own, the argument in favor of universal life becomes that much stronger. If not, how deeply can we adapt to truly exotic environments, and what kind of people will we become if we do? Whether alien civilizations make war is a literally existential question for the whole human species—assuming aliens exist at all. Thousand-year-old schools of thought will need to suddenly change or be rendered obsolete—new and trendy ones will too. There are many more transformative questions and more still that are currently unthinkable. Any one of them will permanently alter the trajectory of human civilization. It is also possible that the entire cosmos is as barren as the Moon. What then?
The Rise and Fall of Spacism
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky supported the Bolshevik Revolution and bequeathed his life’s work to the Soviet state. Wernher von Braun notoriously led the German missile program during World War II and was a member of the Allgemeine-SS. Yet, in one respect, both men were far closer to each other than to their nominal countrymen and co-ideologues. Their implacable focus on the transformative potential of space transcended other ideological commitments regarding class, race, or nation. What they really and effectively believed were different variants of spacism. This is no empty label: when the Soviets occupied Germany’s rocket facilities in 1945, they found their own classified pre-war rocket designs among von Braun’s personal belongings. The rocketeers in America, Germany, and the Soviet Union had in fact maintained correspondence with each other since the early 1920s, including with Robert Goddard.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the two most powerful states ever to exist—the United States and the Soviet Union—decided to explore space, devoting unprecedented resources and the state’s paramount legitimacy. Paradoxically, both states gave up on space in the 1970s, immediately after achieving a streak of the most technically and organizationally impressive feats in all of human history, beginning with the launch of the first-ever satellite Sputnik in 1957 and ending with the Apollo program that put the first men on the Moon. Only twelve people have ever walked on the Moon—the last in 1972, now over fifty years ago. Rather than the beginning of a new era in human history, the first man on the Moon became the end of one.
Just days after the Moon landing in 1969, Wernher von Braun was preparing plans for a manned Mars mission, with the public support of the Vice President. The plan included lunar orbital stations and surface bases, as well as a nuclear-powered shuttle for Earth-Moon transport. But in von Braun’s own words, “the question of what we are going to do […] once we get there,” was a “weak point.” Though he made detailed plans, telling the U.S. Senate that ships would depart for Mars on precisely November 12, 1981, von Braun was personally skeptical that he could sell the Mars mission.
Outside the star-studded dinner party for the returning astronauts, hosted in Los Angeles by President Richard Nixon, protesters had hung a giant sign off a nearby building that said “Fuck Mars.” Democrats wanted social spending. Republicans, including Nixon, wanted to save money, especially for the Vietnam War. Neither cared to put transcendent visions above the mundane realities of political spending. Von Braun and his team believed NASA’s budget might need to double to make a Mars mission feasible. Instead, the 1971 government budget slashed NASA spending to a level that could not sustain the production of the powerful Saturn V rockets, which had carried men to the Moon, let alone provide enough funds to put men on Mars. Depressed, von Braun retired from NASA in 1972.
The Moon landing did not actually diminish the ambitions of the Soviets, who, under Korolev, had always regarded the Moon as a secondary goal to Venus or Mars. But Korolev had died of health problems in 1966 at the age of just 59. His successor presided over four catastrophic launch failures of the Soviet answer to the Saturn V, the N1-L3 rocket, upon which rested any Soviet dreams of Moon landings or beyond. Starting in 1974, the rocket program was not just suspended and then canceled by Soviet leadership, but the rockets were physically destroyed on the orders of Valentin Glushko, Korolev’s erstwhile rival and the new head of the program.
Not only were Soviet political leaders averse to the long-term spending required for a Mars mission, but they were rumored to be afraid that a successful launch of the N1 would also necessitate greater immediate spending. They literally preferred not to succeed. Given the demonstrated aversion of both the U.S. and Soviet governments to allotting the requisite resources for space exploration, the question is rather why they agreed to expensive space programs in the first place.
The credit for starting the Space Race in fact goes to Sergei Korolev, who first secured government support for non-military applications of rockets. In 1953, armed with some suggestive American newspaper clippings, he argued to his superiors that the U.S. was planning to launch the first-ever satellite into orbit, but that his team could beat them to it. In reality, the U.S. was years away from doing so. Von Braun had not yet even met Walt Disney.
Korolev, for the first time, formally requested that the Soviet government support “the study of interplanetary space.” He wasted no time organizing a coalition, enlisting both the Soviet Academy of Sciences and top members of the military, whom he knew professionally, to lend their support. The key report concluded with a discussion of manned spaceflight, building an orbital space station, and a mission to the Moon. Arguing the potential military applications, Korolev got the approval of the defense minister and of Soviet leader Georgy Malenkov. With Stalin still recently dead, Korolev played his cards just right.
The U.S. entry into the Space Race thus essentially followed the culmination of Korolev’s successful deployment of his social capital and persuasive skill in the Soviet government. Following the launch of Sputnik, NASA was created in early 1958 with President Dwight Eisenhower’s personal support, as a response to the perceived threat—and accompanying panic—of Soviet technological advancements represented by the satellite. In 1960, von Braun and his team were transferred from the military to NASA. With his famous 1961 speech declaring America would put a man on the Moon, President John F. Kennedy invested his tremendous political capital into the space program, but, ultimately, only as a means of demonstrating superiority over the Soviet Union.
The Space Race was the result of a few key live players like Korolev persuading and, to some degree, disingenuously frightening their governments that an ideological and geopolitical enemy might obtain a military advantage. While their private motivations were to pursue space exploration for anthropological reasons, they did not argue this view to governments in asking for support. As a result, the governments never actually adopted space exploration as a worthy goal in and of itself.
The Space Race era gave way to a relative thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations, with the first talks and treaties to limit ICBMs beginning in the late 1960s. Since the space program was instrumental to military goals, a decrease in military tensions threatened its funding. When it had outlived its usefulness in the 1970s, the funding was predictably withdrawn by both states. From von Braun’s perspective, it was only Kennedy’s intervention and resounding endorsement that had made the Apollo program possible in the first place. According to von Braun, the future space program needed defense “with philosophical if not religious zeal,” but Washington was only interested in cost-effectiveness.
Space exploration, however, was never just a government program. It was also a set of beliefs and ambitions. What must be explained is not only why governments wound down spending, but why this new and potent proposition failed to attract more—and more powerful—adherents who would find new justifications for its continuation. Despite being the greatest act of “propaganda of the deed” in human history, the Moon landing decisively failed to persuade the relevant decision-makers of the time that a Mars mission was worth pursuing next.
Both budgets and programs were cut. No political player in the U.S. intervened to preserve von Braun’s government career and, in the Soviet Union, none intervened to preserve Korolev’s rockets. To this day, NASA arguably only still exists because the U.S. government doesn’t know how to delete bureaucracies. Why did successful space exploration fail to persuade that it was worth the expense? An underrated explanation is that space exploration apparently failed on its own anthropological terms.
From roughly the 1890s to the 1960s, there was a genuine and tangible mystery within our own solar system that was large enough to leave space for Martian civilizations. For a time, believing in life on Mars—even intelligent life—was an intellectually defensible, if outré, position. During the turn of the century, the American astronomer Percival Lowell, the scion of a very prominent Boston family, made a name for himself by arguing that he had discovered intricate networks of canals on Mars through his observatory, popularizing the idea of alien civilizations.
Nikola Tesla himself was convinced that he had once received radio communications from the Martians. Guglielmo Marconi, the famed inventor of radio, also once floated the theory that Martians were sending messages to Earth. In 1924, when Mars came into its closest proximity to Earth in a century, the U.S. Navy requested all its radio stations to report any “electrical phenomenon” of “unusual character.” As late as 1960, President Eisenhower’s science advisor Fred Singer was speculating that the Martian moon Phobos might be of artificial origin. Von Braun himself had used the idea of Martians in Project Mars.
The appeal of this at the time was the same as that of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—though tarnished after decades—is today: intelligent living beings, new technology, superior ethics, and answers about the nature of life, consciousness, and the universe. All of this, and its eternally transformative potential on humanity, was perhaps within our grasp. But the success of space exploration led to its own defeat. By 1965, NASA’s Mariner 4 probe had captured the first photos of Mars from space, with no canals to be found, let alone Martians. By 1976, the Viking 1 rover had successfully landed on Mars. The Soviets, meanwhile, had landed rovers on Venus and sent back photos of the surface.
The lack of evidence for any advanced life in the solar system only became more obvious, while we slowly came to terms with the difficulty of interstellar travel. Our solar system looks dead and barren; had we discovered Martians, or anything else of interest, it is hard to see how this wouldn’t have become the central defining feature of all political, intellectual, and perhaps even economic life since. But we never did. We’re less sure of the universe as a whole, but our confidence has been wounded. Scientists and engineers themselves, not just political or economic elites, lost interest in the heavens and turned inward towards other goals. Without an attainable promise of transforming humanity, how could space exploration regain its appeal?
The Economics and Politics of Space Exploration
It is possible that there are no good economic reasons to explore space. Resource extraction on other planetary bodies, such as asteroid mining, sounds like the strongest economic justification for space exploration in principle since there is far more matter out there than down here. For example, the asteroid 16 Psyche has been estimated to contain $10 quintillion worth of minerals like nickel and iron—this is 400,000 times the entire annual GDP of the United States. Energy generation in space, such as by solar power satellites, has similarly overwhelming fundamentals. The Sun’s light easily contains enough energy to power civilizations thousands of times more energy-hungry than ours.
The main economic problem is not the untold capital investment, technological advancement, or long-term coordination necessary to make use of these resources, but rather that it is unclear what anyone would do with $10 quintillion worth of nickel or unlimited solar energy. 16 Psyche is perhaps about 10 million billion tons of iron and nickel. For comparison, the whole world produced 2.6 billion tons of iron in 2022. We might make iron and nickel effectively free. But to what end? Far from the limits to growth being the limits of a single planet, we, despite propaganda to the contrary, do not have an economy that voraciously consumes resources. Such gargantuan inputs of matter and energy are important for an industrial economy that is growing faster than its resource base. Ours is a sluggish economy that grows slowly, if at all, since 1971.
We live in a world where developed countries are both deindustrializing and facing structural population decline. Governments and international organizations deliberately aim to reduce industrial activity and energy consumption for environmental reasons. Fertility rates continue to decline in both the developed and developing worlds and the future expected human population declines along with them. Whether we look at China, India, or even Africa, it seems that, counterintuitively, developing countries might decline demographically before they ever reach the living standards of the developed world. No country, including China, has a vision of development that surpasses that of the currently developed world.
At the same time as our total expected resource consumption faces an immediate and long-term decline, the Earth is nowhere close to depleting its natural resources. Relatively straightforward technological advances like fracking, as well as simply more surveying and resource exploration, have led to estimates of reserves of everything from fossil fuels to rare earth elements being repeatedly revised up, even in unexpected places like the Mediterranean Sea. Were demand ever to rise high enough, we would most likely be able to acquire far more than enough of any natural resource on Earth through further surveying and capital investment, at a far smaller cost than would be needed to acquire it in space.
From a cosmic perspective, this is perhaps unsurprising. In the Earth’s crust, there are about 3.4 billion metric tons of matter for every living person. Even abundant energy is currently achievable here on Earth, such as through nuclear power. The effectiveness of nuclear fission also weakens the appeal of, say, mining the Moon for helium-3 to power fusion reactors. All such economic justifications for space exploration then amount to creating a limitless supply for which there is no demand.
There could exist a civilization with such vast demands for matter and energy that space exploration becomes economically attractive through simple Malthusian logic. But this is not our civilization, nor is there any reason to think it will be in the future without deliberate and extensive social, political, cultural, and institutional re-engineering. Our civilization has abundant minerals and energy within its grasp right here on Earth but has no use for them. There is no reason to think space resources are different.
Aside from resource extraction, there are plausible economic reasons for activity in or near the Earth’s orbit, such as operating satellites. But the hard part is justifying activity in space that isn’t self-justifying due to its proximity to all the good stuff on Earth. An obvious proposal is space tourism. Done right, an orbital habitat could blow Dubai or Singapore out of the water as a luxury destination. Once it became old hat, you could build small luxury destinations on or around the Moon, Mars, and further beyond. This would create the demand for other space activity and infrastructure, like better rockets, life support systems, and space mining. It could also be a profitable motive for a private company, even under conditions of industrial and demographic decline.
The only question is if there is really enough demand for space tourism to pay the cost of creating the supply. Building even the initial infrastructure for such tourism could be beyond the ability of any private company. Our first steps into space have already been monumentally expensive. From 1959 to 1972, NASA cost about 2.2 percent of U.S. federal expenditure. Wernher von Braun was working with today’s equivalent of roughly a $138 billion annual budget to get us to the Moon, ultimately successfully. For comparison, NASA’s annual budget today is about $25 billion, only one-fifth of this. The recent Artemis program to return to the Moon will likely cost over $100 billion in total. The International Space Station is sometimes called the single most expensive man-made object ever created, at an estimated $150 billion or more.
These costs, measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, are comparable only to a few spending programs like social security ($1.2 trillion) or the U.S. military ($751 billion). Needless to say, these are government programs. The only companies with annual profits higher than $100 billion are Apple and Saudi Aramco. SpaceX, the premier institution leading humanity to space right now, has a total valuation that is only $137 billion. The costs of space activity can be brought down significantly through technological innovation, private management, and economies of scale, as SpaceX itself has shown by reducing the price per mass of launches to orbit. But this has been done largely in the context of being a government contractor to NASA. Outside of satellites, effectively the entire space industry relies on government funding.
It is no surprise then that a growing list of space tourism and asteroid mining companies have been founded and have failed, though this probably speaks more to the blind enthusiasm for space than its actual economics. It is also possible that tourism is inherently only a follow-on industry that takes advantage of capital investments and R&D made by other institutions with more willingness and ability to successfully invest in expensive, long-term projects—like governments.
Governments can justify effectively unlimited funds for space exploration on the basis of increasing military power, as happened in the original Space Race. It always makes military sense to have communications and surveillance satellites, or perhaps spaceborne missile silos, that are a little bit farther away and a little bit harder to detect, obstruct, or destroy by an enemy. This can eventually justify the economic infrastructure to maintain and develop such military space systems, which might include Moon or Mars colonies.
But a military motivation puts space progress entirely at the whims of terrestrial geopolitics. When geopolitical tensions cool down, space is the first program to have its funding cut. This is exactly what happened from the 1970s until the 2010s, when Cold War détente, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then the hope of peaceful globalization resulted in space progress not only stopping but sometimes reversing. As of 2023, it looks like the U.S. government has once again decided to support space exploration: NASA has tapped Lockheed Martin for nuclear propulsion, while Elon Musk defies gravity as a major government contractor who publicly criticizes U.S. foreign policy.
It is no coincidence that this shift happened at the same time that the U.S. government collectively decided that China was no longer just a far-off trade partner, but a geopolitical and ideological rival to the United States. The U.S. Space Force, and the Artemis program to return to the Moon, were launched by President Donald Trump, whose unprecedented hawkishness on China was quietly adopted by Washington and continued after he left office. At the same time, China’s space program has launched its own space station in Earth orbit, landed a rover on Mars, and is planning not only to land men on the Moon but to build a permanent Moon base. There is little doubt they will eventually succeed. The Chinese space program, even if it were entirely civilian, threatens the prestige of the U.S. as the leading superpower, so it cannot go unchallenged.
But advocates of space exploration should not celebrate this turn of events too enthusiastically. Once again, space progress is being adopted instrumentally for geopolitical reasons, not on its own merits. The U.S. and China are increasingly on a trajectory for military conflict; perhaps over Taiwan, perhaps over something else. Were a war to occur, the victor would almost certainly lose all interest in expensive space investments all over again. In our own lifetimes, we might live to see permanent Moon bases—and then permanently abandoned Moon bases.
Finally, there is no political justification for interplanetary activity, in the sense of leaving Earth for a new life on Mars free from the interference of Earthly mores, laws, and governments. The pressures and dangers of life in artificial habitats, whether on a planet or in orbit, will necessitate strict protocols for behavior, which will be enforced through pervasive surveillance. The systems used to enforce discipline will just as easily be used to enforce political discipline. All such systems will be ultimately controlled from Earth, first because they will be instituted under organizations based on and beholden to Earth, and later because Earth missiles fly fast.
Political independence is actually achieved either past interstellar distances, or by pulling off a truly self-sustaining colony right before a catastrophic decline in Earth civilization that renders it unable to maintain interplanetary missiles. This could be engineered—that is to say, an armed space colony could acquire and preemptively use catastrophic weapons on Earth. But this means that, fittingly for the planet of the God of War, there are no libertarian motives for emigrating to Mars, only militarist ones.
The engineering and logistics breakthroughs that would be made through a large-scale interplanetary expansion are almost certainly a prerequisite for interstellar travel. In practice, these have only been led by governments or government contractors, because there is in fact no good economic justification for large-scale expansion of human activity in interplanetary space, and governments have only made these vast investments for instrumental and extremely unreliable geopolitical or military reasons, which are incompatible with the continuous and generational work that would be necessary for a multi-planetary civilization. In the end, the only pure and reliable justification for interplanetary expansion is its potential to transform human civilization, in particular as the launchpad for interstellar exploration and expansion, but this is precisely the justification that governments have never adopted.
The project of interstellar civilization may seem incomprehensibly vast, beyond the ability of anyone to influence. But it is not inevitable. Like any great work, it will only occur through planned and deliberate human action. Given the scale of distances involved, we will need to carry out the work not only with unprecedented ingenuity and mobilization of people and resources, but generational continuity of mission and succession. This will need to be done without the expectation of economic profit or military advantage. There are in fact many precedents for such projects in history, but only carried out successfully by two kinds of institutions, usually working together: governments and religions.
In all recorded history, states have basically only acted on three motivations: national security, economic growth, and political legitimacy. The first two are unreliable or incoherent for interstellar civilization. The third, however, fits like a charm. Legitimacy is as vital to states as economic or military security. As a result, states have spent immeasurable quantities of resources, for decades and even centuries, on projects that, at first glance, seem to have had no material purpose or value. Think of the bronze ding of ancient China, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the cathedrals of medieval Europe. These projects were not in fact useless but fulfilled the need for legitimacy according to the beliefs, values, and tastes of the peoples who built them. In that sense, they were priceless.
The expansion of human civilization to other stars will not be pioneered by lone adventurers or merry bands of hardy explorers, like we imagine the voyages of Erik the Red or Christopher Columbus. This works for interplanetary space, but not interstellar space, whose travel time will require multiple generations of people to survive a journey, including on the first try. Interstellar travel will need to accommodate not just adventurous young men with nothing to lose, but also women, children, and the elderly. In other words, a whole society. The existence of a society always implies the existence of a government.
More importantly, the sociological challenge of persuading a whole society to migrate into the unknown is very different from that of an explorer’s mission, which needs only the promise of adventure. Like the ancient Israelites, the Pilgrims, or the Mormons, a great migration will only occur when a Promised Land has been credibly found. Indirect evidence of extrasolar planets will never be enough. Whether with colossal space telescopes or ultra-fast nano-probes armed with cameras, we will need to have beautiful images and real maps of alien worlds before human civilization can become interstellar. The purpose of interplanetary expansion is to build the infrastructure and technology to make such scopes and probes feasible. These will be our cathedrals, the legacy which we will leave to our descendants.
Modern governments are often wrongly derided for lacking vision. In fact, they are already committed to multi-trillion-dollar, multi-decade-long visions that require all of society, technology, and world geopolitics to be back-engineered accordingly. The U.S. government, for example, spends half its budget on social welfare programs, especially for the elderly. We take for granted that this is unremarkable, when in fact it is extremely historically unusual and a reflection of our deep commitment to a certain kind of post-industrial society that existentially values comfort and individuality. There is no economic or military benefit to social security, but the U.S. government will use the full force of the U.S. economy and military to defend the system that maintains it. Other goals are possible too.
Rather than a government or religion, perhaps a new kind of institution yet to be invented will be able to take humanity to the stars. But such an institution would need to be capable of organizing people, spending resources, and maintaining its mission on a scale that would rival even the governments of the U.S. or China today. Family dynasties might offer a useful model here. But there is functionally no path to such a powerful institution peacefully coexisting with today’s governments, so it would require a civilization that is orders of magnitude more industrially, demographically, and technologically advanced, where a government that can spend the equivalent of hundreds of trillions can coexist with private institutions that can spend mere trillions.
It is also possible that only a society that treats the pursuit of interstellar civilization as its central legitimating project, from which the legitimacy of all other institutions and ideas is derived, will ever succeed at actually building it. To advocate for space exploration on the back of instrumental economic or military justifications is ultimately more like a trick or a hack than an honest and sustainable long-term position. There is no reason to omit the potential of space to transform humanity for the better, which is ultimately the core and only durable reason to aim for interstellar civilization. Whatever may be out there, however it may change us—there is a golden path to a destiny among the stars. Isn’t it worth following?