Launching a man to the moon is among the greatest achievements in U.S. history; yet, was it worthwhile? Is the technological innovation worth the expense? Can the economic benefits outweigh the amount of pollution produced by rockets? And aren’t there bigger problems to solve than figuring out of one of Jupiter’s moons has ice? Here we examine whether or not space travel is “worth it.”
“The United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward, and so will space.”
—President John F. Kennedy, 1962
Since its inception, NASA’s research for the space program has advanced medicine, public safety, computer technology, and just about every science up to the science of water sports. Without such innovations, the world would be without breast cancer imaging, artificial limbs, artificial heart pumps, the lightweight breathing system for firefighters, GPS … the Super Soaker.
Perhaps, more importantly, though, this research starts a space-led chain-reaction down the scientific scale. For instance, satellite imagery serves as a foundation for understanding the Earth’s atmosphere, which then helps predict the weather and natural disasters. Certain satellite information can also help answer questions about various planetary behaviors like climate change, the Earth’s ability to sustain life, and what would happen to the weather if Superman stopped the rotation of the Earth.
Here are a few things about us and our planet we know less about than our solar system:
-The oceans: 95 percent of Earth’s oceans are unexplored and 95.5 percent of the ocean floor is completely unknown—literally we have no idea what is living down there.
-The human brain: The world’s premier neurologists have no idea how the brain functions as an information processing organ. In fact, they don’t really have a sense of how it works, what it looks like in the brain, nothing.
-Cures for the world’s biggest health problems: Cancer, heart disease, dementia, nothing exists.
Do these not deserve more funding?
Money should be the real interest driving space travel. For starters, the field fosters hundreds-of-thousands of American jobs and generates billions of dollars each year. It’s even common sense among astrophysicists that space travel could rejuvenate the economy. Neil Degrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, firmly believes investing in NASA is investing in the economy, citing innovations in science and technology as the engines for stimulating the economy. G. Scott Hubbard, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, agrees, acknowledging that for every dollar spent on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Furthermore, the royalty payments in NASA patents and licences goes directly to the U.S. Treasury, not to the pocketbook of a Silicon Valley Techspert.
Perhaps more lucrative—and controversial—space travel can potentially open up some untapped markets like asteroid mining and space tourism. Some experts think asteroid mining could become the next gold rush. In regards to space tourism, if it were up to Richard Branson, we’d be launching people (notably Tom Hanks and Leo) to space on Virgin Galactic today. The economic potential of outer space is literally unknown.
NASA currently operates with a budget of $17.5 billion per year. That seems like a lot, but, that sentence could also be said, “NASA uses 0.5 percent of the U.S. budget.” Not so bad.
In its heyday, when Kennedy first declared that America would send a man to the moon, the “cost” of that mission dispersed to $20 per American per year. Adjusting for inflation, that’d be the equivalent of paying $200 to NASA in 2016.
Today, that number’s quite different, with the average American taxpayer contributing $0.41 to the space program. Again, that doesn’t seem like much, but, when you think about it, that’s 41 cents to awe and inspire. Yes, “awe and inspire” because, for most Americans, space exploration yields little practical return. Though breast cancer imaging and artificial limbs are profound advancements in the field of medicine, its impact among the majority of “Americans” is minimal. Instead, the 41 cents currently going towards the space program could be reallocated so that it covers potholes or reduces poverty or, at the very least, fights global warming more effectively than “we’ll move to Mars if it gets that bad.” For example, if NASA’s budget were directed to feeding Americans, it could feed every hungry child for over three months.
As humans, there’s an innate condition to understand the unexplainable. Psychologist Jerome Kagan posited that the human condition wants to eliminate the distress of the unknown and is highly motivated to reach concrete explanations. Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski defined it as “cognitive closure; describing this as “individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion towards ambiguity.”
Though “curiosity” hardly answers—and may in fact denigrate—“why” the U.S. sends men to space and rovers to Mars, the desire, from a psychological standpoint, exists, and maybe this desire will remain until science gives us an answer.
Every old satellite, every shoddy piece of space equipment, every rocket launch booster is simply floating aimlessly around the universe. In 2007, the Chinese government tested a missile by smashing an old weather satellite, and those 150,000 chunks of debris are floating around space. Two years later, in 2009, two satellites crashed into one another, and those shards, too, are somewhere in the universe. Where? We don’t know. What will happen to it? No clue. But, for all we know, this level of pollution could be akin to what occurred during the Industrial Revolution. And we probably won’t know until it’s too late to correct it.
Image: Joe Penniston, CC-BY
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.