CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ rocket launch opened a new chapter in space exploration. Space will no longer be the domain of just governments, as corporations increasingly take the lead in the research and funding of new programs. It is unclear, however, whether this new era of space exploration will benefit just wealthy businessmen like Bezos, or whether the many advantages of space travel will extend to the world as a whole, including those who suffer from poverty. The question is an important one because as counterintuitive as it may seem, investing in space travel actually offers a plethora of opportunities to reduce poverty here on earth.
Satellites orbiting the earth can be a vital new weapon to fight poverty from space because these satellites can closely examine physical living conditions around the world. Many impoverished countries lack the resources to conduct detailed surveys into the state of their people and the best ways to alleviate poverty. In Africa, for example, 14 countries have been unable to conduct any poverty surveys in the last decade. Thanks to new observation technology, satellites can offer an alternative, mapping out towns and villages while assessing economic conditions more cheaply and effectively than a government could. Once the world has more access to information about poverty, it can take steps to treat it.
The uses of satellites to identify and fight poverty from space go still farther. India has used its satellite program to better predict rainfall, storms and other weather phenomena. With its system of weather satellites, the Indian government can give farmers recommendations of what foods to plant, and when and where to plant them for optimum results. The many uses of satellites to reduce poverty might explain why a variety of poorer countries have launched their own space programs.
Yet fighting poverty from space can even extend to the far reaches of the solar system. Many experts and economists expect that the moon and asteroids will become important sources of metals and other minerals within the next few decades. The moon in particular holds large reserves of rare earth metals, essential for most electronics, including phones and computers. At the moment, virtually all of the world’s rare earth metals must be mined from a few very dangerous and inhumane work sites. In China, for example, the toxic byproducts of rare earth metal mining often leak into the water supply, killing livestock and plants, and driving locals away.
Space travel provides an alternative to these sorts of exploitative and dangerous labor practices. Experts expect that space mining would cause far less pollution and damage to the landscape than mining on earth. If we got our rare earth metals from space, the people who now work brutal and difficult mining jobs could instead find other professions, perhaps even working in the new space travel industry themselves. Meanwhile, increased supplies of rare earth metals would mean cheaper electronics, bringing connectivity and the information age to every corner of the world.
Space travel offers an exciting chance for exploration and discovery, so it’s no wonder that the ultra-wealthy, such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, are interested in going beyond the limits of the earth. Yet we must not forget the need for a globally conscious space exploration program. If we use space travel to reduce poverty on earth, all of humanity can partake in the wonders of space.
– Thomas Brodey
Photo: Wikimedia Commons