“Aeronautics was not an industry nor a science, it was a miracle.”- Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the helicopter
What’s the point? Why spend so much time and money studying things that don’t really matter? Who cares if our galaxy hits another one in 4 billion years (which it will)? And why do we need pictures of things so far away that even their light takes a few thousand years to get here? We’re never going to get there, so why bother? I’ve heard a lot of these questions over the years. Space exploration has been called the biggest waste of money the U.S. has ever engaged in. Let’s look at that a little closer, shall we?
NASA’s budget for 2016 is about 19.3 billion dollars. The U.S. government’s budget came in around four trillion dollars. For the “non-mathletes” out there, that’s little less than half of one percent going to space exploration and other science. For homework, do a little comparison of that number to, say, Social Security, which is guaranteed to fail, or the farm bill, mostly food stamps and other extortion programs. You may have a differing opinion, but I would much rather have my money spent on education and exploration rather than creating dependence on theft.
But 20 billion dollars (let’s round up to make it sound worse and irritate math teachers) is a massive amount of money. What do we get for that? In 1975, the Cold War between our nation and the Soviet Union was going strong. Both sides had built an arsenal with the potential to destroy most of humanity, if used, even those not involved. But in July of that year, we were able to get past that insanity temporarily when three Americans docked with two Soviets 140 miles above the earth. Making this happen took five years of scientists, engineers, and politicians working side by side, most of whom did not like, trust, respect, or understand each other. On earth, we despised each other, but, in space, we had a common goal which forced us to work together. This is a trick drill instructors have used for hundreds of years to build trust and confidence between recruits in training. I can vouch for it being very simple and very effective.
Now we depend on Russia for rides to the house they helped us build 250 miles up. Some call it the International Space Station. Keeping it flying at 17,000 miles per hour takes cooperation from several nations, with the U.S. and Russia doing most of the heavy lifting.
The technology has also inspired private industry to get in the game. The SpaceX Dragon capsule now makes deliveries to the ISS and returns equipment and experiments. Bigelow Aerospace is developing an inflatable lightweight “hotel” and lab with rooms for rent at an expected one million dollars per day. The modules also have the potential to be used on the surface of the moon or Mars as more permanent habitats. The first “room” has already been attached to the space station and is in use right now. As technology improves and space is more accessible, other private investors will take notice. Private industry is always more innovative and adaptable than government, but even I must admit NASA made these companies possible.
Other developments from NASA include “memory foam” used for helmets, mattresses, and airplane seats. Studies on algae have given us chemical compounds used in about 95 percent of infant formula for better eye and brain development. Sunglasses that block UV light and digital image processing used in MRIs and CAT scans also came from that investment in science. Without an understanding of how to lift satellites into orbit and keep them there, we would not have GPS tracking or Google Earth images.
Studying black holes and gravitational waves may lead us to understand why exactly we stick to the ground. This may lead to controlling gravity. Don’t laugh. In the 1940s, engineers believed it was impossible to fly faster than sound. Forty years before that, it was impossible to fly anywhere. Now millions get annoyed every day because they only get a bag of peanuts while they sit in a cushioned seat 30,000 feet up traveling 600 miles per hour.
CubeSats, small satellites the size of a soup can or loaf of bread, are bringing down the cost and increasing the capabilities of scientific instruments in space. Even elementary schools have gotten in on their construction. There are a few dozen companies that will give you a quote on getting yours into orbit or building one for you. If you don’t think a soup-can-sized machine can do real science, take a look at your cell phone and count the apps you have on it. Now imagine a dozen of them working together during flybys of other planets or comets.
All of these companies and agencies have different goals in mind for space exploration, but they all have at least one thing in common. To achieve these goals, we have to let go of old grudges, misconceptions, and childish ideas that have divided humans for centuries. And, like a child moving from crawling to walking to driving a car, every step requires humanity to gain a little more maturity before we can take it. When I compare that twenty billion dollars to the other things my tax dollars are used for, I see it as money well spent.