Space: It's cold. It's boring. It's not our concern.
Leave Venus to its maybe-microbes and come have lunch
The news that some rank gas on Venus is a strong (though not conclusive) indicator of microbial life outside our planet has been greeted with much enthusiasm. The truth, perhaps, is really out there, albeit far smaller and less intelligent than X-Files promised.
It is also, I suggest, none of our business. The contents of the cold, empty darkness beyond Earth's orbit are not really our concern. Space is not for humans, and we should leave it alone.
The physical attributes of space make this obvious. Other planets, various nonplanetary bodies, and the void of space itself are not suited to human life. It is not our home, nor will it ever be absent massive terraforming projects, which could well prove impossible or even disastrous. What is terraforming, after all, if not deliberate climate change on an unprecedented scale? Or what grim consequences could we suffer if we take our worldly conflicts to space or bring back some extraterrestrial invasive species? These questions are better left unanswered. Outer space is utterly unhospitable to us, and we should take the hint.
Ah, space lovers may protest, but space exploration is a source of many benefits to humanity. Is it, though? The benefits of travel and research outside the Earth's orbit are almost entirely secondary. That is, the innovations and discoveries made in the course of work toward space exploration are telluric achievements we could have reached without involving space at all.
Tab through NASA's 26-page tract of "Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration" and you'll find boasts of by-products "from solar panels to implantable heart monitors, from cancer therapy to light‐weight materials, and from water‐purification systems to improved computing systems and to a global search‐and‐rescue system." Of these, only the last item is space-specific, and it uses satellites in terrestrial orbit.
Seeking to circumvent the very suggestion I am making, the NASA document quotes deeply irritating science barker Neil deGrasse Tyson. "People often ask, 'If you like spin‐off products, why not just invest in those technologies straightaway, instead of waiting for them to happen as spin‐offs?'" Tyson says. "The answer: It just doesn't work that way." He continues:
Let's say you're a thermodynamicist, the world's expert on heat, and I ask you to build me a better oven. You might invent a convection oven, or an oven that's more insulated or that permits easier access to its contents. But no matter how much money I give you, you will not invent a microwave oven. Because that came from another place. It came from investments in communications, in radar. The microwave oven is traceable to the war effort, not to a thermodynamicist. [Neil deGrasse Tyson, via NASA]
This is an effective explanation of positive externalities in scientific research, but it no more proves the necessity of space exploration than the necessity of war. Scientific inquiry does not have to involve leaving Earth or killing its inhabitants on a mass scale to produce valuable spin-off products. Perhaps we would not have the exact same discoveries without space exploration, but perhaps they would have been developed through different scientific pursuits — or perhaps we'd have something better were we not wasting money mucking about on barren planets where we do not belong.
If the benefits of extraorbital space exploration are far less than apologists would have us believe, the risk is far greater. The implicit suggestion, often made explicit in tellingly dystopian pop culture fantasies, is that space is our backup plan. If we ruin this planet, maybe we — or the lucky few among us — can bounce to a new one. Mars, most likely, as, among other advantages, it's easier to warm up on a cold planet than to keep your face from melting on a hellishly hot one like Venus.
This is a bad (and potentially illusory) incentive. It encourages recklessness, not conservation and pursuit of peace. Energies and funding spent on space would be better spent here, preserving our home, improving human quality of life without harming our native environment, and ceasing to blow each other up. One planet is quite enough, and quite enough trouble, too.
Off-planet relocation is still hypothetical, of course, but off-planet travel is not. That includes space tourism, which is not yet commercially available outside Russia (where it has been suspended for several years) but likely will be within a decade, albeit only for the immensely wealthy.
Space tourism is often knocked for its elitism, but I would reject it at any price, because space is simply not a good place to go. It has no history, culture, museums, or restaurants. The celestial nihility is immensely boring and perpetually unpleasant. The scale is all wrong for us. Your accommodations, at least in our lifetimes, would be something like a glorified camper trailer, and your food would at best rise to the level of a TV dinner. If you journeyed as far as another planet, you'd sacrifice years of your life and all the human goods they should have held to glance at empty vistas from a plastic bubble. Madness seems probable. Visiting space would be the most miserable road trip ever devised, except when the vehicle breaks down, you die.
I suppose I do not begrudge others the opportunity to thus squander their vacation time and resources (memento mori, but there's no accounting for taste). Private space exploration and tourism are more tolerable than that conducted by the government at taxpayers' expense. But that this tourism is the work of people like Elon Musk, a man so divorced from the mundane and rightful pleasures of human existence he wishes to cease eating, should tell us something about the nature of the endeavor. Exiting Earth's orbit to hurtle through frigid oblivion is not a worthwhile human activity.
Leave Venus to its maybe-microbes and come have lunch.