Space –an infinite expanse of celestial bodies.
The very concept has piqued the interest of many from time immemorial. Scientists, astronauts, thinkers, philosophers, they’ve all attempted to study a portion of this unfathomable entity –our solar system. Space exploration has been an ongoing process since the longest time, undergoing endless growth and evolution in terms of technology. Be it Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, or the invention of various instruments such as telescopes, the LHC, the LIGO wave detector or unmanned space probes, man has left no stone unturned to learn more about the universe our planet floats in.
But of course, the cost of these expeditions isn’t as empty as space itself. Space agencies of the likes of NASA, ISRO, SpaceX, ESA (only to name a few) require regular funding to the extent of millions and billions of dollars. These figures pertain to singular projects and not the working of the agencies. Bummer.
Expensive, isn’t it? “Maybe these funds would be better allocated on ground, where there prevail real problems, than beyond the atmosphere,” you say? Food for thought indeed.
So here is what we need answers to: Do economies stand to benefit from space exploration at all; and should the funds allocated to these agencies be slashed and diverted, would we be better off?
The answer to the former question (at least) is a definite yes! And here is how…
As a by-product of scientific research aimed at space ventures, various breakthroughs in technology are made, which would otherwise not have been explored. This has led to various spin-offs. NASA, for one, has in fact enumerated various technological spin-offs owing to their research work, to prove to those who consider their taxes being misutilized for bizarre ET discoveries that the funds aren’t in vain. NASA’s improved version of artificial limbs, for example, which was developed for the safety of their crew, has also benefitted those on ground. Statistically, more than 2 million Americans alone, suffer from limb impairments. In the light of this, improved prosthetic technology definitely yields welfare benefits. Another innovation was the advent of an emergency flight control system, designed for better landing of aircrafts suffering from loss of control or other malfunctions. This technology has also equally benefitted commercial flights and improved commutation.
Satellites launched by these agencies contribute majorly to humanity. Ranging from weather satellites, which help predict rainfall and thus crop yields along with fueling shipping and transportation concerns, to navigation satellites, which have blessed us with the boon of the GPS, to communication satellites, which has basically created the concept of globalization to a large extent –the uses are in plenty.
There can also be benefits to the environment: studying the layers of the atmosphere and the effects of global warming on them, satellite images of inaccessible areas of the poles, discovering anomalies, helping find solutions –these are a few of the many ways in which space venture benefits us humans. Another example could be the water recycling system used in space. Such methods may have well existed on earth, but the ISS space station took it a step ahead by finding ways to convert human urine and perspiration into drinkable water. This benefits the major population and might prove to be a beneficial tool to the military, where water must be capitalized upon since it can exhaust quickly.
To the layman, it may also be important to point out that Space Agencies also provide employment opportunities. The 2012 Curiosity Mars Rover landing, for example, required a $2.5 billion investment to be made. Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator at the time has argued, saying that this fund wasn’t spent on the red planet but very much on ours, “supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states.” With fluctuations between requiring a large work force for a certain project and periods of inactivity, lay-offs aren’t uncommon. However, that is a part and parcel of economic functioning, and science and space exploration is definitely not to blame.
What’s more? Numerous contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are funded by these agencies for the manufacture of body parts of space shuttles. NASA has also been a continuing support for the aerospace federal contractor industry. Economic benefit confirmed? Yes.
If allowed to project a bit of futuristic thinking, further benefits can be extracted.
Asteroids have been found to be rich in metals and minerals; such might be the case with planets which haven’t been vastly explored yet, too. In case of extraction of such resources, space exploration could generate revenues to the extent that it would overcompensate for the costs incurred. And mankind’s progress over the past few decades doesn’t make such a mission sound too impossible.
“I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.” –says Stephen Hawking. Looking a little beyond the near future, it is also evident that space exploration isn’t just a long-term luxury to quench the thirst for knowledge, but more of a necessity to prevent the human race from disappearing off the face of earth. In terms of opportunity cost, ensuring an infinite future owing to technological advancements is more beneficial than the stagnation and finally death of human culture & civilization.
Such enhancements on earth are reason enough to encourage space exploration.
The economic benefits of space exploration, as aforementioned, should have been convincing enough. To what extent? Well, that is subjective. Can the funds be better allocated to other industries? Well, for starters, private space agencies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic are considering launching humans into space for commercial purposes. Inter-national flights are old school already; inter-planetary travel could be a reality; your passport could read “Jupiter” instead of same old “California.” Why, then, would you want to reallocate funds elsewhere?
So, “Can the funds be better allocated to other industries?” I ask again.
Let’s leave that as an open-ended question to you.