In Defense of Curiosity: Do We Have a Moral Imperative to Explore?

By Michael Baker

The Mars rover and mobile laboratory Curiosity touched down on the surface of the Red Planet early Monday morning, and already it’s being derided as a huge waste of resources.  With a $2.6 billion price tag, that’s to be expected.  But there’s a larger point that a lot of the detractors may be missing, and that’s the significance of this particular mission to space exploration, and to the quest for human knowledge.

That might sound pretty grandiose, but Peter Diamandis is arguing that as humans – as thinking, reasoning beings – we have a moral imperative to explore.  It’s not just that we have curiosity, it’s that we are morally obligated to have Curiosity.

Diamandis makes three basic points as part of his argument: that space holds resources that could be used to benefit us Earthlings and wipe out inequity, that space exploration allows us to “back up the biosphere” by leaving a footprint somewhere else in case we’re all eventually blown to bits, and that as humans we are genetically encoded to explore.

I’m not so sure that has me convinced.  There are lots of starving children in Africa who don’t have the desire to explore anything except their next meal, and for whom that $2.6 billion is far more than the resources that they need.  What does that say about moral imperatives?  Call me crazy, but things seem more imperative when they’re closer to home, and when the basis of comparison is Mars anything here on Earth would qualify.

Still, I don’t think Diamandis is completely off base about having an imperative to explore outer space; maybe it’s just not a moral one.  I think it’s by essence of our humanity that we feel the urge to find out what’s out there, and denying our own humanity is dishonest and counter-productive.  We gotta be us.

Ultimately, the human exploration of space is probably a search for meaning.  I’m not sure we’re going to find much meaning for Mankind out there among the sand and mountains of Mars, but it’s a pretty cool ride nonetheless.  The fact that the pictures that Curiosity has sent back so far look more like the landscape of the Mojave Desert than the surface of a rock 150,000,000 miles away is sort of reassuring.  It makes the Galaxy feel small, and that makes things that seemed impossible feel achievable.