A few of my closest friends are physicists. In fact, when I went to see Interstellar, I made sure one of them was at my side. My physicist pal and I loved the movie, and to us (especially the physicist) the physics of the story were merely a layman's version of the real thing, but that was the right way to do it. A third member of our viewing party, a girl whose interests could be described as more spiritual than scientific (not that the two are mutually exclusive), utterly despised it. What I couldn't figure out, despite her attempts to explain, was why. I kept coming back to the conclusion that it was because she didn't understand it, but the reality is that plenty of people -- very intelligent people -- don't fully understand the physics behind Interstellar, but its ratings would suggest that they don't mind the confusion.
The truth, though, is that she just wasn't interested.
Many people just aren't interested in space.
NASA accounts for only 0.58 percent of our annual budget, yet the average American believes we are spending too much on space exploration and research. Compare that with the only 37 percent of Americans who believe that our $1.2-trillion annual defense budget is too high.
To those who have seen the movie, the condition of our planet during that film seems like a realistic metaphor for the disasters that climate change will bring, and spending more money on our military isn't going to stop those disasters. In fact, a larger military is more likely to lead to the deadly wars described in the movie and add to the carbon buildup that is almost exclusively responsible for climate change. Climate change is here and will only get worse over our lifetime. Widespread natural disasters, famine, and probably wars will all soon be part of the reality of our survival on this planet unless we do something just as drastic as the Armageddon that we've caused.
Is NASA going to save us by taking us all to a different planet? Not likely, though colonizing other planets actually isn't entirely outside the realm of possibility, especially with Mars and Europa literally on the horizon. But what most people don't realize about NASA is how many incredible inventions have emerged as mere byproducts of their space-faring missions -- like microwaves and duct tape.
After talking to a few people about the movie, it occurred to me that not only do many people not fully understand the physics of space travel, but they hold the physics portrayed in the movie to be closer to fantasy than to science. This is indubitably not the case. Interstellar is one of the most scientifically accurate science-fiction movies ever made. To those who doubt my authority, the producers of Interstellar hired a physicist from Cal Tech to check and double-check their physics throughout the movie.
Interstellar is not just a movie but a warning, one that should be taken very seriously. The Dust Bowl-esque apocalypse that is portrayed in the movie puts climate change in a perspective that even its diehard deniers can understand, and the social statement of portraying NASA as a secret organization under a society that believes the Moon landing was faked highlights how foolish our public opinion on space spending is. We need to fund NASA more, not less. With $1.2 trillion for just one year, NASA could put colonies on the Moon, Mars, and Europa in our lifetimes, and we'd get to reap the benefits of every piece of technology that is yielded as a result.
Better battery technology, solar technology, nuclear fusion, quantum-entangled communication and processing, artificial intelligence, cryogenic sleep, medical advancement, and many more breakthroughs we can't even imagine -- this is just a taste of what we could have in our lifetime if we funded NASA just a little bit more than we do today. The full $1.2 trillion is not even necessary. Ask most scientists and they'll tell you that we are trapped by the paradox of our own economy. We have the intellectual and physical resources necessary to solve climate change, global hunger, and most disease and travel anywhere in the Solar System we want, but we don't have the economic resources. The reason this is a paradox is that the economy is entirely man-made. In essence, we are needlessly restricting our own progress, but that is just the way our world works right now. So fund NASA! We are only now beginning to realize the trouble we are in when we should be desperately searching for solutions. Funding NASA will bring not only the necessary advancements that could save our planet but advancements that will improve the quality of life for everyone (again, like microwaves).
The one shining light, despite the lack of public space funding, is SpaceX. Opinions on the merits of space exploration turning into a private industry are mixed, but the social benefits are still present. The company's founder, Elon Musk, announced that SpaceX would be designing a fleet of low-orbit satellites to bring wi-fi to the entire planet. Take that promise as a taste of the real-world benefits of funding modern space travel beyond just saving our lives. Who wouldn't want worldwide free wifi?!
Fund NASA, invest in SpaceX, write your congressperson, and vote. Space travel isn't just cool. It isn't just something to do because we can. If Interstellar has anything to teach us, it's that space travel can save our species. The truth is we might need saving very soon.