The perennial question: Why space? Why do we spend money on NASA? Why should we go to the Moon or Mars? To get to the right answer, we'll first eliminate some of the wrong answers people often give.
Wrong: We must colonize space to preserve the species
People in this camp believe that by building off-world settlements on Mars, we as a species can survive an extinction event on Earth.
Creating a totally independent colony is insanely hard. The Roanoke colonists likely died waiting for a resupply because they failed to adapt to the lush North American climate, how ridiculous is that? The "scientists" in Biosphere 2 attempted, and failed, to show that we could create a self-sustaining, enclosed system completely separated from nature. They failed at creating a second Earth on Earth, so it's unlikely that we will be able to create a self-sustaining ecosystem on Mars any time soon, especially given that the largest thing we have landed on Mars so far is the size of a minivan.
The "survival of the species" argument is my personal least-favorite argument because the people who make it seem smugly superior, like they posses powers of reason and imagination that allow them to see farther than the normal person. But they are missing something right in front of their eyes.
It is more likely for us to survive underground on Earth in the case of an extinction event in the next few hundred years, so if your immediate concern is survival then space exploration should not be your field of choice. Go join your local prepper club and focus on technology like hydroponics, which has just as much applicability underground as it would on Mars, and you can build it here out of scrap parts you find lying around. How much stuff is there lying around on Mars right now?
Mars does not hold the key to our survival at this point in time. Maybe 200 years from now it will be more plausible that Mars could be totally independent from Earth, but if you are asking the question, "Why do we explore space" then the answer "don't keep all your eggs in one basket" is a fallacious aphorism.
Wrong: Exploring space creates "spin-offs" that make life on Earth better
NASA did not invent velcro and no one has ever eaten freeze-dried ice cream on the space station. The first satellite to transmit video through space was Telstar 1, which belonged to AT&T, not NASA.
If you were asked, "Which government organization funds research to make your life better," don't you think it would be weird to answer NASA and not the National Institute of Heath?
The role of NASA in elevating the modern status quo through the provision of "spin-offs" is overemphasized by many. It is NASA's brand, however, and we are stuck with it.
Wrong: Exploration is in the human DNA, we all seek what is over the next hill
Coming from Iowa, I have seen in my classmates and acquaintances evidence that humans are certainly not programmed to seek out new experiences. We may have been culturally programmed to watch others' heroic adventures on TV, but our own tolerance for personal risk is not that high.
Often people mix this argument with the spin-off argument, telling parables of the villager who went over the hill and discovered some verdant pasture filled with milk and honey, and the villager goes back to the village and leads the people to this new Eden. The moral of the story is that the moon actually is made out of cheese, and we'll find gold in the craters if we have the audacity to look for it.
The issue is that we have looked for it. We have seen over the next hill, and all we've seen is space. We know a lot about near-Earth asteroids and we know a lot about the ice deposits in the permanently shadowed lunar craters, but there has not yet been economic and legal conditions favorable to the exploration and use of these resources out "over the next hill." It is not a hermetic, apathetic culture with renewed xenophobic leanings that is holding us back, it is the lack of a supply chain extending into space which prevents free exploration by willful individuals.
This argument competes with "to prevent extinction of the species" as the argument most often delivered with excessive melodrama.
Wrong: Space is a proxy for war with primarily geopolitical motivations
Diplomacy is certainly at a recent low with the fair election of isolationist and even racist nationalist leaders. We watched Brexit unfold from our couches and heard Trump declare "America first" in his inaugural address, and now the question is "What is going to happen between the US, Russia and China?" Will we turn to our space program as the tool by which we shame other globalist empires?
Space was the perfect battlefield in the 60's. It simultaneously proved the threat of ICBM-delivered nuclear warheads to quell the enemy and emboldened the nationalists with ideological platitudes which elevated conflict above the horrendous depravity of WWII into the new sphere of the intellectual, technological elite. Which regime was more progressive? Which regime would conquer the final frontier?
These same questions are not applicable to the space community in today's society where progressivism is on a decline and the technological frontier is now cyber warfare.
Right: We explore space because we want to
To hook into the aforementioned battle of economic theories, I should bring up the case of the Jewish kibbutz, a kind of communal lifestyle that sprung up at the creation of the state of Israel. When the kibbutz were first founded, everything was owned by the community and distributed or re-distributed evenly, so that even the shirt you wore was not your own, it could be worn by anyone else after the next time laundry was done. But this hard-line communism didn't last and before long people started to keep things for themselves again, like clothing and the food they liked. After only a few generations, the kibbutzim have become indistinguishable from capitalist culture. Kibbutznik owning cars, oy vey.
The point is that people want things, have always wanted things, and will continue to want more things. Space exploration is not for the good of anyone, least of all the generations to come, but it is the chosen industry of people like me who want to explore space and find that they can make money doing it. So why fund space exploration? It's appealing. People want to do it. 17,000 people applied to be astronauts last year alone, and eight were chosen, which I think indicates demand for more jobs in the space industry.
People will learn more skills by applying themselves towards a goal they want to achieve than by pushing pixels to fulfill somebody else's passion. Lots of people are passionate about space as opposed to, for instance, car insurance. Let's foster growth in the space industry for the good of the workers, not the good of humanity. In the case of space exploration, that means pursuing public-private partnerships to bootstrap an infant industry into a larger community can can employ millions of workers, not thousands of PhD's which is the norm today.
I hope you enjoyed this article and are not disappointed by the paltry and slightly socialist conclusion that the government should help people obtain work in the field of their choosing.