Space, the final frontier. We are born with an elemental eagerness to make the unknown known, to discover the undiscovered. Since ancient times, we have ventured far and wide. That inexorable vigor has perhaps become humanity’s greatest virtue. And so then, the question is, are we done? We have explored the extremities of our planet, and space is mankind’s next giant leap. Therefore, we must wonder, is it worth it? Is exploring the infinite stretch of space worth our effort and our time?
Humans have had the fortunately unfortunate burst of technology, innovation and knowledge all in an incredibly short span of time. For thousands of years, we remained almost entirely primitive, and so, this dramatic shift in our way of life has not allowed our intellect to catch up to our achievements. We face the problems of today, with the judgment of our ancestors.
Keeping that in mind, we will attempt to arrive upon our conclusion by being as critical as possible, and taking into account both credits and benefits of space exploration, as well as its pitfalls and shortcomings. To do this, we will look at the issue through a multitude of lenses, including: socio-economic, scientific, environmental, and philosophical. Hopefully, after reading through this short essay, you will have learned something new, and perhaps have formulated a slightly different opinion of space, exploration, and the necessity to innovate in general.
Exploration has always been expensive. Space exploration is many folds more expensive. NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, received about US $18 Billion in funding for the 2015 fiscal year. It used this to launch new space shuttles, research new technologies, send probes to Mars, and other space-related activities (FY 2015). On the other hand, the military sector alone constituted of around $500 billion of the total budget, or 30x the total expenditure of the US into the development of space (Federal Budget). In total, the United States of America’s federal budget for the year of 2015 was $3.7 trillion dollars (Federal Budget). When compared to the national budget, NASA had a paltry 0.5% of total, while still achieving many incredible things.
Assigning a solid number on the economics may prove to be difficult, as such a number would be extremely difficult to quantify. And even if we could, it probably would not do us any good. That is why for the most part, it is easier to speak qualitatively, and reference past triumphs and defeats.
A database found on NASA’s websites titled Spinoffs, contains all of its innovation in various sectors as a direct result of space exploration. From water filters to memory foam, to solar panels and satellite television, NASA has had an unprecedented hand in shaping many aspects of our modern society without us even realizing. NASA also spends many millions of its budget to invest in smaller companies that provide them with new technology and research. There are detailed infographics available from NASA, that show exactly how much and where they have invested (Dunbar).
If we did have to put a number on it, a report from NASA’s administration calculated that space-related activities contributed around $180 billion to the American economy in 2005. That is to say, that every dollar invested in space, yielded $10 in return (Griffin).
Even Canada, with its meager and often invisible space program, is also reaping riveting benefits. According to Robert Thirsk, “Canadian taxpayers typically invest about $250 million per year into the space program, but… [see a return of] over $3 billion dollars a year of revenue.” He went on to talk about the intangibles, concepts such as national pride, inspiration, and the continuation of a legacy of brilliance.
On another note, the European Space Agency managed an incredible feat: they successfully landed a probe on an asteroid (“Rosetta”). Currently, NASA is also working on a project (dubbed Osiris) to send a probe to another near-Earth asteroid, and bring back samples. The samples of course will be used for further research, but what this entails is that without doubt, space agencies are making great strides in their endeavors (“Osiris”).
However irrelevant the asteroid landing may seem, if properly assessed, asteroids carry with them great fortunes. Precious metals such as gold and platinum sell for $50,000 per kilogram, and even a small asteroid could be worth up to $30 billion (Elvis). While the technology to actually mine an asteroid is a far off prospect, it will definitely be one of the many by-products of research and development into space.
Regardless, you may hold the opinion that there are bigger, more pressing issues that need our attention. And you would be correct! Problems such as world hunger, poverty, disease, our depleting sources of energy, and environmental decay are all, paradoxically, on scale much larger than space. In the beginning, it was stated that we have an archaic mindset while trying to tackle the ever-shifting paradigms of the new world. This has split most people into two groups: those who believe our problems will simply disappear with time, and those who believe our problems will disappear with time, but only if we ceaselessly – and carelessly erect constructs of cash to halt these problems in their wake.
However, as time has told, both these methods seem to have done little, as transparent darknesses akin to those mentioned above continue to creep up our tiny world. And so, we must adopt a new way of thinking, a new way of doing, if we are to stand a chance.
An article on Forbes highlighted a discussion with renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Part of the interview that particularly resonated well with us was when he said: “if you want to get people to build a boat, don’t drum up wood and supplies, teach them to yearn for the open sea,” which is a variation of a quote by another author. Essentially, Tyson is attempting to tell us that to fix our problems, to really fix our problems, we need to restructure our solutions from the ground up. In recent years, there has been a tendency to throw money wherever something we do not like shows up, expecting it to go away. But that simply does not work. What we need now is innovation. Innovation leads to inspiration which will ultimately lead to more innovation.
According to Tyson, investing into space exploration will lead to a “culture of innovation,” a phenomenon that he likens to those nameless yearners of the sea, who now possess both the resources and necessary drive to better their world. When the best scientists have the necessary resources to find ground breaking discoveries and create amazing new technology, the applications for said technology will surely be used for more than just some space probes and telescopes.
With the advent of the new and the amazing, enthusiasm will seep into the general public, and into the children of today who will be the leaders of tomorrow. More people will go into medicine and math, and even those who do not, will still have a culture of innovation ingrained in them. And when we have the best people working on problems that we did not even know existed, the outcome will be the solutions to our everyday problems.
Thus far, space is both viable and welcome, but before we get ahead of ourselves, the discussion of the particular nature of our travels needs to be catalogued, particularly the many trials and tribulations. Space exploration is not only expensive, but difficult; it is more challenging than the hardiest of our troubles. The colloquial phrase: “it’s not rocket science,” is no misnomer. Even if NASA and other space agencies have the necessary resources to fund their research, they will hit the next mantle head on. It is time we discuss the scientific and environmental lenses.
The best place to begin would be to explore the engineering technicalities. Space exploration has a multitude of issues in this area. The weight of the spacecraft and the cost of sending materials into space is astronomical; for each kilogram of payload and spacecraft itself, it costs $10,000 and $22 000, respectively (“Paving the Highway to Space”). The reusability, or lack thereof, also poses another obstacle. As of now, we have yet to create even one fully reusable space shuttle (“Reusability”), but it has the potential to reduce costs “[by] as much as a factor of a hundred.” (Musk)
On another front, we have made little progress on the medical side effects of having humans in space. Eventually, we will have to conduct long term experiments where the sheer distances between celestial bodies will become a clear issue. The moon at its closest is about 384,400 km away (“Earth’s Moon”), and everything else is millions or billions of kilometers from us. These distances obviously take long periods of time to traverse, implying either space crafts will need to become faster or people will need to be in space for extended periods of time. The latter will result in a host of medical and technical issues that we have yet to resolve:
Gamma radiation is not deflected by our kind and fluffy, atmosphere, resulting in increased risks of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease along with reduced cognitive abilities (Cherry et al). Additionally, gamma radiation in space can damage electronics over time leading to the failure of the computers used in the space craft (Fiore 1561-2).
The lack of gravity, or microgravity, is another potent problem. Microgravity is defined as a weak gravitational force. It may sound harmless, but human bodies have not evolved to be in zero gravity, so we cannot yet be present under the influence of vastly different gravitational forces. Blood in our legs will get redistributed to the head, blood volume will decrease by up to 10% within 24 hours, motion sickness will occur, muscles will atrophy, bone mass will decrease, and the immune system will become impaired. All increasingly bleak prospects for any future champions of space (Williams et al).
Due to the lack of progress on the medical effects of putting humans in a space environment, we only have methods of reducing the reducing the severity of these effects rather than fully preventing them. On top of that, these symptoms are from missions lasting less than one year long (Williams et al), meaning the side effects of long term exposure to a space environment is still unknown.
We must also look at the environmental effect that space exploration has on the ozone. To put it briefly, think of the ozone as the peel of an orange, and as the layer becomes feebler, consequently, it becomes more susceptible to damage. Since there are many future rocket launches planned – for longer durations of time, and with a greater frequency, a deeper understanding of the effect that rocket launches have is needed. Currently, only by a few hundredths of one percent, do global rocket launches deplete the ozone layer (Ross). However, this figure is expected to exacerbate with the increase in space exploration. A single radical (highly reactive trace-molecule) can decimate upwards of 10,000 ozone molecules (Ross).
Outside the Earth, just as intriguing a process is occurring: the orbiting of a copious amount of debris around Earth. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office defines debris as “all man-made objects in orbit about the Earth, which no longer serve a useful purpose.” Examples of such, include: decrepit fragments of spacecraft, upper stages of launch vehicles, debris created as a result of explosions or collisions and solid rocket motor effluents.