16 April 2008

Nine Good Reasons for Space Exploration

Posted by Ryan

Advocates of space exploration often get asked the question: “Why should we spend money on NASA where there are so many problems here on Earth?” Universe Today has been compiling a list of responses to this question by space-bloggers from across the web. Check it out, there are some great answers.

In response to Universe Today’s call for answers, we decided to compile a list of our top reasons that space exploration is a worthwhile endeavor. I also encourage everyone to read The Case for Space Exploration, a collection of essays and articles put together by the Space Foundation.

Now, without further ado, our list:

1. Perspective – As our telescopes probe the depths of space and time and our spacecraft missions reveal the scale and diversity of worlds even within our own solar system, we are provided with a humbling sense of our place in the universe. Carl Sagan expressed the significance of this perspective in a beautiful passage in his book Pale Blue Dot. You can also listen to Sagan himself read the passage in this video clip. The world would be a better place if everyone watched that video.

2. Protecting and Understanding our World

3. Inspiration – The Apollo missions inspired an entire generation of students to pursue math and science careers. As our society becomes more technology-dependent, the populace needs to become scientifically literate to keep up. Telling students that “You could be the first astronaut on Mars!” or “You could be the one driving the next Mars rovers!” is a pretty effective way of inspiring them to study science and math.

4. The Economy – NASA does not launch buckets of cash into space. The majority of the money spent on space exploration goes toward the salaries of thousands of skilled American workers who make NASA’s missions so successful. For more on this, and its connection to the recent Mars rover budget scare, check this post.

5. Exploration – To be human is to be an explorer. It is part of who we are: since the first tribes left the African savanna and spread into Europe and Asia, we have had the need to explore the unknown. Now humans have visited or settled every corner of the globe. The instinct to explore is still active, but there are very few outlets. Some people seek out extreme or exotic places to satisfy this need, risking their lives to do so. Others look to the skies. It may be an old cliche, but Star Trek had it right: Space is the final frontier, and it calls to the explorer in all of us.

6. New Technology – Space exploration brings together a lot of smart people from many different fields and puts them to work on some very difficult problems. The result is not only fantastic scientific discoveries, but also many useful inventions. From healthier baby food to technology to better diagnose breast cancer, to farther flying golf balls, NASA technology is all around you. Check here for an extensive list.

7. Answering The Big QuestionsHow did life begin? How did the universe begin? How was our world created? Are we alone? These questions and others have been asked by every generation since the dawn of time. That we can even ask them is a testament to the power of the human brain. Now, because we are smart enough and bold enough to explore the universe, we are finding the answers. In the words of Carl Sagan, “We are starstuff contemplating the stars.”

8. International Collaboration – Large space exploration projects are almost always the result of international cooperation. The International Space Station is the most obvious example, but the space shuttle regularly has astronauts from other nations, and many robotic missions include instruments built by teams in other countries. As NASA gears up to return to the moon, precursor missions from Japan, India, China and Russia are already in orbit, are planned, or are under construction. Future human Mars missions will almost certainly involve multiple space agencies to spread the cost among several nations.

9. Long-term Survival – As it stands, all of humanity’s eggs are in one small basket called “Earth”. It is only a matter of time before something happens to our planet that is so devastating that it changes the course of life as we know it. Whether the disaster is natural, like a rogue comet, or self-inflicted, like nuclear war, it is possible that our home will no longer be habitable. What happens, then, to all of the accomplishments of the last thousand generations of humans? All of our art, our music, our literature, our science, even our very genes could be wiped out. Unless, of course, there are a few humans living elsewhere in the solar system. Space exploration and colonization of the Moon and Mars are an insurance policy for humanity and all of our achievements.

That’s what we came up with. We think that, based on the reasons above, it is certainly worth it to spend 0.60% of the national budget (just six out of every thousand dollars) on NASA. We’re interested to hear what you think. Is the investment in NASA worth it?