Houston I think we have a problem… with our priorities


Illustration by Alix Salzer

Alix Salzer

Elon Musk recently stated that in as little as 10 years, a human will land on Mars. As exciting as the proposition seems, it is not where our priorities should lie. With the countdown to ecological disaster already in motion, our focus should not be so literally out of this world.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have only 12 years until the damage to our planet is irreversible. Approaching our world’s possible death, colonizing Mars seems more like an escape plan than the next logical step in scientific discovery. Of course, Musk’s company is primarily funded through private contracts, not by the government, therefore making it difficult to instruct the corporation on how to run. However, Musk is not the only one with his eyes on the stars. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced a manned trip to Mars is likely to occur in the year 2037. Unlike Musk’s plan, NASA plans to simply orbit the red planet, not touch down. Still, it will be costly: according to a report by the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI), the total cost of the Mars trip would be 120.6 billion through 2037.

So how much is this to NASA really? According to NASA’s 2019 Presidential Budget Request Summary, the administration is projected to receive just over 19.89 billion dollars from the federal budget, with the Mars trip costing about six point seven billion dollars per year. So, how could the space program use their money to help the environment? Well, NASA already has a few programs set up to aid the planet. In the budget, NASA has dedicated over 2.168 billion dollars toward Earth sciences Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration. While this is a great start, in the coming years, the administration should focus more monetary aid to these Earth-friendly programs. 

A trip to Mars could actually cause environmental damage. According to Scientific American, rocket trips can cause air pollution. During blast off, exhaust is brought to the upper layers of the atmosphere, working to deplete the ozone layer. Then, as the rocket re-enters the atmosphere we see pollution in re-entry smoke particles (pieces of space debris that are vaporized on the rocket’s way to Earth), and in the burning of large chunks of materials like aluminum, which could change the chemistry of the atmosphere. While space exploration is important to better understand the universe and our planet, it is just not relevant enough to sacrifice the good of the environment. 

When trying to protect the environment, science should be a top priority. However, creating a plan to run off into space seems too much like neglect than a beneficial scientific advancement. While traveling to Mars shouldn’t be resigned to the realm of fiction, keeping it that way just a few years longer could ensure our focus on more needed aspects of life. This time around, the giant leap for mankind should happen here on Earth.