Funding Space Exploration: Benefits Beyond Space

Shaelyn Silverman shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

On July 20, 1969, a surge of national pride rippled through the entire nation when Neil Armstrong uttered what has become one of the most famous and beloved phrases in the history of the United States: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” [1]. Armstrong had just become the first human to set foot on our moon – a feat strongly endorsed by President John F. Kennedy who blatantly maintained, “While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last” [2]. Today the United States faces a similar goal; this time all sights are set on Mars. Yet with large economic failures, widespread poverty, exacerbated climate change and persistently overwhelming fatality rates from diseases – to name a few global problems – it has become increasingly difficult to justify funding space exploration. Superficially, it may seem that space exploration does not engender any direct benefits to humanity, nor address the prevalent issues we face on Earth. Yet it is through our insatiable desire to continually push the boundaries of knowledge in space that we have made unparalleled advances in research and technology; and ultimately, the future of humanity depends on space exploration research.

Space exploration at its fundamental core requires revolutionary technology to “boldly go where no [human] has gone before” [3], as quoted from the beloved Star Trek series. Tackling the immense challenges such as engineering rockets that exceed the escape velocity of Earth, and protecting astronauts from the deleterious effects of microgravity conditions and intense radiation in space, requires unique innovation and extreme intelligence. As a natural byproduct of these advancements, breakthroughs in knowledge and technology are often achieved that would not have otherwise been explored. For example, NASA’s intent to improve the safety of astronauts and the performance of space vehicles has led to improved models of artificial limbs that are more comfortable and functionally dynamic while less physically damaging [4]. As more than two million Americans alone suffer from limb loss [5], improving prosthetic technology yields widespread benefits. In fact, NASA has enumerated an extensive list of its spinoff technologies on their public website. One such innovation in the aeronautics department was the advent of an “emergency flight control system designed to increase the chances of safely landing an aircraft suffering from total loss of flight controls,” and/ or engines [6]. Developed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, this research stemmed from the imperative need to create backup solutions for the high risk of spacecraft failure. However, this technology can be equally utilized for commercial flights that experience hardware failure, and will dramatically reduce fatality rates, serving as a direct benefit to all flyers.

Additionally, the need for a thorough water recycling system for astronauts stemmed from the fact that a pure water supply is quickly exhausted in space, and thus urine and other liquids must be capitalized upon as water sources. As a result, researchers at NASA Ames have engineered a system that effectively eliminates contaminants from liquids using forward osmosis and carbon-driven removal of organic molecules, which regenerates drinking water and reduces biological waste on spacecraft [7]. The applications of this space exploration-based innovation span broadly and benefit the majority of the population, as it can be useful for the military, the developing worlds, for backcountry explorers, and even first-world recycling treatment systems, to name a few.

Before the 1960s, we did not fully comprehend the future consequences of our impact on Earth. The Mariner missions that spanned the years 1962 to 1973 were designed around the intent to study potentially habitable conditions of the two most “Earth-like” planets in our Solar System – Venus and Mars – manifesting our yearning to explore our cosmic neighborhood. However, the discovery instead that these planets are in fact largely inhospitable, most notably on Venus, which suffers from 800°F surface temperatures due to a runaway greenhouse effect [8], served as a large wake-up call for our planet’s own fate. Through these missions, it became widely evident that our carbon dioxide emissions are accelerating global warming on Earth, which is causing the polar ice caps to melt, sea levels to rise, oceans to become more acidic and devastating heat waves to persist for longer intervals [9]. Furthermore, within the last few decades, geoscientists have discovered that climate change could occur “on human timescales” [10], which has exacerbated our need to address these issues immediately. Unbeknownst to many, NASA dedicates nearly $2 billion of its annual budget every year to studying global warming and other environmental issues, and operates 21 Earth-observing satellites devoted to to providing information on how our planet is changing [11]. NASA is the global leader in Earth Science programs [12]; the tremendous wealth of data it accumulates on these global changes is synthesized worldwide into plans for action. Without this knowledge, our detrimental impact on Earth would not have been realized until we had passed the irreversible threshold for dangerous greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Our planet could feasibly suffer from the similar runaway greenhouse effect that has plagued Venus unless we closely monitor and respond to these issues, which is a priority of NASA.

Similarly, our desire to study asteroids and comets is a large reflection of our passion for space exploration, as these objects provide insight into the history of our Solar System. Yet amidst this enchantment, there is a predominant, more rational purpose for investing resources into surveying asteroids, comets and other objects from outer space. The hypothesized meteorite that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs could produce a similar fate for humanity if these objects are not carefully monitored. Thus, NASA spends $40 million of its budget to carefully track Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that are potentially detrimental to the human species. Not only this, but NASA is also part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is developing “disaster response plans for NEO impact scenarios” [13] – an expensive but critical operation, upon which the future of humanity will eventually depend.

Though our drive to explore space often seems grounded in our allure of the cosmos, space exploration is an imperative branch of research that provides us information pertinent to our planet’s health, innovative technology that offers wide benefits and observations vital to the long-term sustainability of the human race. It may seem inane to spend so much money surveying distant objects while we face a wealth of problems on our home planet. Yet in reality, NASA’s budget is $18 billion dollars – a mere 0.5% of the total U.S. federal budget [14]. In contrast, cancer care is estimated to reach $156 billion in 2020 [15]. NASA’s meager budget does not reflect the importance of its research to all of humanity. How can we justify allocating nearly nine times the amount of money for research on a disease that affects 39% of the population [16], while knowledge gained from space exploration directly affects 100% of the population? The last five decades of human presence in space has led to advancements in nearly every aspect of society. From worldwide communication systems, to global positioning data, to weather forecasting, we have come far in harnessing the capabilities of our planet. But our planet does not reside in an isolated vacuum of space. We dedicate extensive resources to understanding our planet, but given the fact that Earth is directly impacted by events in the rest of the universe, shouldn’t we devote an equal amount of effort to understanding our larger home?