Why do we care about asteroids? Or Pluto? Or methane seas on a Saturn moon? It is a question that besets space science. Amid all the needs here on Earth, who really cares if a rock from Mars’ Meridiani Planum shows that liquid water once flowed there?
In her cover story this week about asteroid research, staff writer Eva Botkin-Kowacki starts by offering her answer to this enduring question: Asteroids matter because – hello, remember the dinosaurs? Mass extinction tends to grab the attention. Mountaineer George Mallory gave us the somewhat prosaic “because it’s there” explanation of exploration, while US President John Kennedy attempted something a little more poetic.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people...,” he said in 1962 of his plans for a moonshot. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills....”
All true. Yet the essence of all science – and space science in particular – is hard to define precisely because science does more than study rocks and calculate launch trajectories. It fuels the expansion of thought. Put another way, science is one of the most reliable ways to coach humans out of narrow, static thinking and into mental channels that grow and challenge our views of – well, everything.
Just because this cannot be measured with calipers or on a balance sheet does not diminish its inestimable value to the world.
When science led Albert Einstein and Max Planck to the conclusions that would become general relativity and quantum mechanics, human thought entered realms previously unknown. These fields are no less a voyage of exploration than those of Magellan or da Gama. But rather than opening a new territory, they have opened new mental vistas. As the understanding of what reality is stretched and expanded, scientists were forced to become more elastic and free in their thinking. Expanding our understanding of the universe has literally expanded the boundaries of thought.
Speaking of a mission to an asteroid, one scientist in Eva’s story says: “I don’t even want to predict what we’re going to find. The only thing I can guarantee is we will be surprised.”
Those findings might not reshape thought with the force of E=mc². But they will be one more peck at the shell of limited understanding. Even if it’s only in a small degree, they will broaden humankind’s mental vista.
Expansion has ruled and ordered the material universe since the big bang. It is the defining trait of successful economies. When we apply the right principles, the result is that knowledge, freedom, wealth, and health all expand naturally. In whatever form the quest to expand understanding and possibility takes – even, perhaps, an asteroid hunt – it is inextricable from human progress.