What is space exploration really worth?

<span property="schema:name">What is space exploration really worth?</span>

What is space exploration really worth?

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    Michael Capitano
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The cosmos has always been fascinating. From the Maya to the Egyptians to the Greeks, reading into what is beyond our terrestrial existence has been a process ongoing for millennia. We’ve come a long way from using the stars for calendars and religion. Our advancing technology allows us to probe, and explore. It would be a shame not to go searching, given that it is a very human thing to do.

There is no doubt that the prospects of discovering an alien organism or a second Earth are exciting. And we keep getting closer. History is flooded with major astronomical discoveries. Of course, this had not been without controversy (as Galileo knew all too well). The modern controversy regarding space exploration is not of religious concern, however, but a socioeconomic one.

Before writing this article, I had my own reservations about space exploration. Why not focus our resources on exploring and improving our own planet first? Why waste resources on trying to put settlements on the moon or Mars when we cannot even get the management of Earth right?

A common objection goes something along the lines of, “How can we justify the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death?” The numbers back that inquiry up. The Mars rover Curiosity cost over 2.5 billion dollars. A child dies from hunger every five or so seconds. When these two facts are placed beside each other, it makes us wonder what a few billion dollars could do. According to The Borgen Project, it would take 30 billion dollars a year to put an end to world hunger. The NASA budget is around 18 billion a year. Surely, if space exploration was shut down and the money was reallocated, it major dent could be put into solving the world’s hunger problem.

Even Martin Luther King Jr objected: "If our nation can spend $35 billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam and $20 billion to put a man on the moon it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their two feet right here on earth.” 

But is such comparison worthy of debate or is a non sequitur?

Putting the numbers in context

In reality, is NASA’s budget really all that much? It comprises merely 0.5 per cent of the United States of America’s annual federal budget of around 3.5 trillion dollars. It is almost nothing when compared to the 737 billion dollars per year spent on Defense. Wouldn’t that part of the national budget be better to chip away at?

Surely, if the political will was there, the leaders of the world could band together to get rid of all the bad humans have caused and fix all the mistakes that were made in the ongoing history of humankind. The reality is that such a reality will never be realized, since it would involve a complete overhaul of the global socioeconomic system. Inequality is a consequence of capitalism, but it doesn’t seem like too much to spend a trillion or so dollars to patch things up? Yet, the main issues plaguing our modern globalized world are historical and political, issues that money isn’t going to simply solve. Diverting all funds allocated to space allocation towards remedying the world’s problems wouldn’t do all that much besides depriving us of scientific knowledge about space.

The point is that the money allocated to space exploration shouldn’t be singled out to help solve the world’s or a nation’s problems. In America, almost a trillion dollars is spent every year on pets, toys, gambling, alcohol and tobacco. Perhaps people should use that money for the poor instead of on their bad habits. Space exploration shouldn’t be a scapegoat just because it’s otherworldly. Understanding space is crucial to understanding our place within it. No doubt, trying to solve the world’s problems is a noble and just cause. But stifling our knowledge of the universe isn’t the way to go about it.

Time to up the budget

Looking at it the other way, for every one dollar the federal government spends on NASA, about 100 dollars are spent on social programs; reallocating even one percent of that towards space exploration would double the budget of NASA. That would create a stronger space program, where research and development could provide important technological advances as well as scientific discoveries relevant to humanity and Earth. Anyone can see how effectivesatellites have been the modernization and globalization of society.

From that perspective, funds for space exploration should be increased! Think about what has been done so far and how cheap it is has been. Recall that Curiosity only cost 2.5 billion dollars. And look at how impressive the rover has been so far on its two years on Mars. Instead of asking why money is being spent on space exploration when there are other pressing needs, we should be asking why more money isn’t being spent! Some billion dollars a year has been funding our ascent into space. It’s time for more of it.

The 2015 budget for NASA has been slightly reduced. The shuttle program to land a spaceship on an asteroid has been cancelled. Earth science and planetary science funding has been reduced by tens of millions. Innovation and education is being slashed. The future for young scientists and space explorers is not looking bright.

Cuts to the space sciences will only do more harm than good. Just ask Bill Nye, famed popular scientist and CEO of The Planetary Society. In an open letter to Barack Obama, he passionately states: "The planetary science division of the space program accomplishes extraordinary things, because it is extraordinary. We want to look for signs of life on other worlds… Such a discovery would be astounding. It would, as so many astronomical discoveries have, change the course of human history. ... [S]upporting a robust space program raises everyone's expectation of what's possible. With a space program, everyone in our society comes to believe and expect that any problem we face can be solved. ... Most people have an interest in space and some have a passion for studying it. It would be a shame to deny that privilege, especially when there are so many riches left to be discovered."

The beauty of outer space

With all that being said, forget for a moment about the monetary costs. Forget about the logistics and the numbers and all the good and bad and what not. Forget about the politics and pragmatics. Forget about how beneficial or not space exploration is to humanity. What made me change my mind about space exploration wasn’t a numbers debate. It was the reminder that exploring the universe is very cool. Learning more about the place we find ourselves in, from the physics of it all to discovering stellar structures, is awe-inspiring and incredible. Being able to land on our neighbouring planets or peering millions of light years away into the past is no small feat.

I’ve been following the blog Bad Astronomy, authored by Phil Plait at Slate Magazine, for a couple of years now. His passion of astronomy and earth sciences is astounding. Every post exudes with excitement. As a small sampling, look at what we would be missing if we never explored space by any means at all. Undoubtedly, these posts are worth checking out:

1) A N D R O M E D A: Have you had your “holy wow!” moment for the day? No? Then let me help you. Presenting the Andromeda Galaxy. And oh boy, is it a presentation!
2) The Closest Known Exoplanet? Maybe …: We’ve found them around distant stars hundreds of light years away, and some much closer. And that brings us to a newly found planet just announced: Gliese 15Ab.
3) A Dying Star Creates a Flower in Space: Of all the planetary nebulae in the sky, none is more celebrated than M57, the Ring Nebula.
4) Dating a Star … a Few Hundred Thousand, in Fact: Globular clusters are too cool. For one thing, they’re gorgeous. I have proof!
5) Our Place in the Universe: Welcome to Laniakea: Laniakea (la-NEE-uh-KAY-uh I think is pretty close to how you pronounce it), a galactic supercluster.

If the beauty and grandeur, the awe and majesty of these images don’t persuade you, I’m not sure nothing will. Our universe is grand and we’re just a small part of it.

A sliver that buys us the Universe

What is spent on space exploration is minute, and the prospects are exciting. Answering the questionsthat have been a part of the human psyche is what humans do. It is what drives technological advancement. And the results have been ground breaking and very cool.

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