Why Should We “Waste” Time With Space Exploration?

By: Ryan Kirby

It seems that every day there is some new catastrophe facing off against humanity: a ruinous hurricane, an infectious outbreak, a raging wildfire, a politically-fueled conflict, a starving population – the list is endless. With so much suffering around the world, it is easy to see why people want to divert time and money away from “non-essential” areas to send relief funds to the many in need. Nobody wants this suffering to continue but it is far too often that science (and space science, in particular) is targeted as being expendable when, in fact, it is in these times of catastrophe that humanity is in need of space sciences and exploration the most. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, it becomes more obvious when looking back at how impactful space exploration has been on our world so far.

First and foremost, if we never sought to “reach for the stars”, as so many of us were told to do from a young age, our little blue planet would be absent of any satellites. Satellite technology has been the backbone of navigation since the inception of the Navstar Global Positioning Systems (or GPS) and of television broadcasting for decades but it also plays a major role in instant banking, meteorology, environmental monitoring, and many other parts of our lives. While Sputnik wasn’t launched intending that one day a “constellation” of satellites could deliver high-speed internet around the world, as StarLink hopes to do soon, the technology developed to launch Sputnik and its successors made this possible. 

In fact, this is largely how space science has impacted our everyday life – by delivering us new technologies made for space exploration that are useful far beyond their initial intentions. The late Ernst Stuhlinger, a well-respected NASA scientist, made note of this in his acclaimed reply to a Zambian Nun shortly after the first lunar landing. Sister Mary Jucunda asked Stuhlinger how he could justify the massive expenses of the Apollo program when so many children are starving on Earth, to which he said, in part, “Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our earthly technology where they lead to [a better] everyday life”.

Some of these countless technologies include the moon-boot material that revolutionized modern athletic footwear, fire-fighting suits inspired by the fire retardant fabric developed for space suits, cordless electric hand tools, quartz crystal clocks and watches, and even the retractable rooftops of modern sports stadiums! The valve technology used to precisely control the propellant flow in the space shuttles was even used later to develop an implanted medication delivery system used to precisely control the flow of the medication, like insulin, into the body. These new technologies have significantly improved our lives and our well-being even though we are not using them to walk on the Moon or control propellant flow.

Astronaut Bruce McCandless conducted the first controlled spacewalk while unattached from a spacecraft using a jet-propelled backpack in February 1984. Image courtesy of NASA and Unsplash.

Space exploration provides us an exciting, motivating, and hope-inspiring way to develop new technologies that can go on to better our lives in the near future. This might spark the question in a skeptic’s mind of “Wouldn’t we be better off just investing more time and money in researching the technologies we need on Earth right now?” This may sound like a better approach but many technological advances are made indirectly when people are excited, motivated, and determined to achieve some great challenge – like space exploration, for example.

The excitement of space exploration also plays a major role in inspiring people to look towards and study all types of sciences. Space has always been symbolic to humans even since early civilizations. It is awe-inspiring and hope-inducing to many and as we explore it, we can spark this awe in our next generation to make them excited to explore science and achieve other great challenges.

The excitement and technological advances brought to our lives by space exploration have, and will continue to better our world. While so much suffering is happening on Earth, we cannot give up on exploring beyond our home because, in the face of this suffering, it is more important than ever that we continue to build an array of new cutting-edge technologies that can better our planet and our future and that we continue to invoke hope about humanity’s future in the world.

Ryan Kirby is a scientific communicator and educator working as a Research Associate in the Young Scientist Program at BMSIS and a Communications Intern for NASA’s BRAILLE project.