For The Future Of Humanity, Should We Be Exploring Space Or The Oceans?

Is it worth spending billions on space missions when that money could be invested in improving life on Earth? These experts duke it out.

You might imagine that we know more about our oceans here on Earth than about the places beyond our atmosphere, but Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau and founder of EarthEcho International, offers a mind-boggling statistic: “Only three people have been to the bottom of the ocean, and 12 people have been on the moon,” he says. “It’s a very mysterious and unknown place.”

Cousteau points out that the deepest parts of the ocean are 36,000 feet below sea level, which means that Mount Everest could fit upside down in that space and still not reach the bottom of it. And every time we explore these depths, we find new forms of life and make new scientific discoveries, including the fact that some aquatic plants don’t need sunlight to survive but carry out a process called chemosynthesis to generate nutrients. And yet, humans have only explored 5% of all our oceans.

In Civic Hall, at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Cousteau and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) scientist Hannah MacDonald engaged in a spirited debate with NASA scientist Ellen Stofan and Google Lunar XPrize senior director Chanda Gonzales about whether it was more worthwhile to explore our oceans or space.

Cousteau believes that investing so heavily in space missions at the expense of Earth-bound explorations is foolish. Given that a billion people depend on seafood as their primary source of protein (and that 3 billion people born over the next three decades will reside in coastal regions) understanding the ecosystems at work in the ocean can go a long way to ensuring that humanity is able to thrive. Take, for example, the situation with U.S. fisheries: A decade ago, American fisheries were slowly dying out because of over-fishing, but because the government has poured half a billion dollars into solving the problem, 64% of fisheries have been restored.

Currently, NOAA’s budget is $12.6 million, which dwarfs NASA’s space exploration budget of $8 billion. “We don’t have an unlimited amount of resources,” he says. “I would love to do both, but we don’t do both.”

In NASA’s defense, however, Stofan argues that NOAA is not the only government agency that focuses on studying the ocean. And she also argues that the fundamental research that NASA does has many applications, some of which might advance oceanic study, including, for example, satellites that are able to identify how quickly ice-caps are melting because of global warming. NASA has a long list of spinoff technologies–up to 13,000 by some counts–that have Earth-bound benefits. Some are as basic as baby formula: 95% of brands include a nutritional additive that was developed to help astronauts survive on the International Space Station. And many aviation technologies, from de-icing systems to new fuels, were developed by NASA. “It’s a false choice [between oceans and space],” Stofan says. “The important thing to realize is that by studying life on other planets, by pushing these technologies forward, we actually help life here on Earth. NASA’s favorite planet is actually this planet.”

Still, both the pro-ocean and pro-space contingents agree that society tends to undervalue both forms of exploration. They all believe that governments should be investing more in scientific study. When asked how everyday citizens can try to make a difference in the future of these fields, Cousteau argued that we must vote for people who are willing to invest in science and think about sustainability. “Not just for the presidential election, but for local and federal elections,” he says. “We must send the message that politicians who are going to compromise the future for our own short-term gain are not going to get elected.”

Stofan, for her part, says that we need to make the STEM fields more diverse. “Around the world, we are not using over half of our population,” she says. “Women are not going into STEM fields in this country. We have people of color in this country that don’t feel welcome in the STEM fields. We need all hands on deck.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



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