OPINION: “Earth first” – an emotional argument lacking understanding of the facts
Every year NASA spends an average of about $18 billion on its various activities. What has that purchased? How much of that comes out of the pockets of the U.S. taxpayer? The facts are surprising and the lack of gratitude and ignorance spread about NASA’s budget – is disappointing. This is made worse by the argument raised since the very beginning of the Space Age that we need to focus on Earthly concerns first. Anyone, with even the most basic understandings of human history knows that this argument is based off of emotion – and will only serve to injure humanity’s chances for long-term survival.
The International Space Station (ISS), to date has cost $150 billion, $50 billion of that was paid by American taxpayers since 1994. The total cost of the Space Shuttle Program: $200 billion, that includes the cost of the refurbishment of Launch Complexes A and B, astronaut training the facilities, expendables and infrastructure to operate the program. Each mission cost an estimated $450 million. Humanity’s greatest journey to date – cost even less than the shuttle program.
Apollo, the effort that saw six missions send crew to walk on another world – cost $23.9 billion. This relatively low cost, considering what was accomplished has caused some historians to call Apollo a “gift” to the U.S. taxpayer. In fact, some of the most wasteful space-related expenses – have been caused by the actions of politicians – not the agency itself.
NASA had already invested an estimated $9 billion (there appears to be some evidence that this might have gone as high as $14 billion in order for NASA to cover the cost of cancelling contracts) on the Constellation Program, even going so far as to renovate Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B and conducting a single test flight of the Ares-1-X booster – before President Barack Obama attempted to cancel virtually all aspects of NASA’s crewed deep space exploration efforts. Thankfully, elements of the program were salvaged and NASA is still working to send crews to destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.
Given the chaos inflicted on NASA by the present administration, it should come as no surprise that opponents, oblivious to the fact that NASA’s budget is about one half of one cent of every tax dollar. A conversation with these individuals immediately conveys a total lack of knowledge regarding space exploration efforts.
To say that those who push this concept are ill-informed (at best) is an understatement of interstellar proportions (pun intended). The following statement sums up their argument:
“We need to deal with the economic, environmental and social issues first! This is the oft-repeated refrain from those decrying how ‘trillions’ of dollars are being paid for the elite to go up to the Moon or ‘wherever’ and do whatever it is they do up there.”
Seriously? If you don’t have a clue regarding which you speak – don’t speak.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting humanity to get its act together before going deep out into the cosmos. But anyone who takes a look at humanity knows one inescapable fact. As long as there have been people there has been war, disease, terrorism, illiteracy, bigotry, famine, disaster and death. Those that think $18.7 billion will suddenly change that – are either stunningly ignorant – or being willfully dishonest.
How would cancelling the space program help any of these problems? Anyone who takes a millisecond to consider this argument – realizes that it is based off of emotion – and is devoid of rational thought.
In the end, those who push this sentiment – suffer from myopia – they are simple people who lack the ability to see the bigger picture. Our planet is only really capable of sustaining a population of about 4 billion. We are nearing 7 billion. Worse still, Earth has already gone through about 98 percent of its habitable life (that part of the planet’s lifespan where it is capable of supporting life). However, maybe if we focus on just one problem at a time – perhaps then their argument has some merit?
It is estimated that a mere $30 billion a year could end world hunger. Surely that $200 billion we spend on the Space Shuttle and $50 billion America spent on the ISS could have stamped out world hunger?
Unlikely. Since 2010, NASA’s annual budget has been fairly static at around $17 billion. At its peak, in 1966, when NASA received 4.41 percent of the federal budget, that would have translated in today’s dollars into about $43 billion. In other words, even at its most extravagant, the money spent on space would have run out in little more than a year just on feeding the hungry—to say nothing about the other world problems people believe defunding NASA would solve.
In FY 2013, NASA received 0.49 percent of the Federal budget, or about $16 billion, in a country with a gross national product of $17.06 trillion.
Astronomer Phil Plait pointed out that “For the cost of less than a single day on the War on Terror, we could have a robust and far-reaching program to explore Mars, look for signs of life on another planet, increase our overall science knowledge, and inspire a future generation of kids.”
What about education? Wouldn’t all that money spent on space be better spent on education? Actually the Department of Education’s budget is $77.4 billion, orders of magnitude more than NASA has ever received. Ending spaceflight would scarcely make a difference. What about medical research? The NIH invests $30 billion a year in medical research. NASA’s $17 billion would be a pittance.
Actually, many of our Earthly problems that people think ending spaceflight would help to solve—are already being solved by space research. And as a matter of fact, NASA is heavily involved in medical research. Aside from the spin-off technologies, which include pacemakers, MRIs, tiny transmitters to monitor a fetus while still inside the womb, voice-controlled wheelchairs, tools for cataract surgery, and many others—research aboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station has already yielded medical benefits that are saving lives.
Astrogenetix is a company specifically dedicated to medical research in space, and has already experimented possible vaccines for Salmonella and MRSA. Research on long-term effects of weightlessness could yield life-changing results for people on Earth. According to astronaut John Blaha, “…a mission to Mars will not be feasible until a cure is found for osteoporosis—and for that, he says the International Space Station is a necessity.”
Weather reports generally comes with a satellite image. If you live in an area prone to hurricanes or tornadoes, your very life can depend on satellites stationed 22,000 up in geosynchronous orbit, or at 350 miles in polar orbits. But those satellites don’t just monitor the clouds; they also monitor ocean currents, snow melt, burn-off in gas and oil fields, volcanic ash, pollution, and the Antarctic ozone hole.
Clearly our embryonic space program has already brought us a wealth of benefits, and that’s only from 1957 to the present day.
We still have a long way to go. The long-term benefits of each of our space program is debatable, largely because the focus of the space program keeps changing. The Apollo Moon landings may have led to a base on the Moon—but the Apollo Program was canceled. The Constellation Program would have returned American astronauts to the Moon and sent a crewed mission to Mars—but it was canceled. The International Space Station may yet serve as a vital stepping stone to missions to Mars, although today NASA has no definite mission, so the future is very much in doubt.
This is not due to a lack of vision within NASA – but rather one ingrained into the United States’ political leaders – which get their cues from the voter. Therefore, sadly, some aspects of what NASA is doing – is viewed as little more than a jobs issue within certain states. As with so many things, it all comes down to money.
But why spend so much on a space program when we’re in the middle of an economic crisis? Answer: there is no better time. The reason we’re not seeing enormous economic and tangible benefits from today’s space program is because it’s so tiny. A well-funded space program would put billions of dollars into the private sector—remember, not a single penny is spent in space; it’s all spent on Earth. Depending on the size of the program, it could create thousands of jobs across the country—indeed, across the world. New and unforeseen technological marvels could transform civilization. New materials, new sources of energy, new medical breakthroughs, and new scientific discoveries would benefit everyone.
In other words, if we made the decision to invest as a nation in the space program, it would improve the quality of life—and would give us a new and exciting frontier, something that has lacked for more than a century. But we would have to accept that spaceflight is hard and dangerous. So what? Take a look at the early European pioneers’ explorations of the New World.
It’s hard to move out of your parents’ house into your first apartment. But if you only go halfway, you never get there. Right now our space program isn’t even going halfway, it’s barely getting off the ground.
As noted earlier, there are vital and fundamental reasons that we must get off the Earth.
On Feb. 15, 2013, a fragment of an asteroid hit the Earth’s atmosphere and exploded 18 miles over Chelyabinsk, Russia, resulting in 1,491 injuries and 7,200 damaged buildings. The asteroid in question – was tiny, a microscopic representative of the titans that exist at our cosmic doorstep.
Chelyabinsk served as proof that the danger posed by Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) is not science fiction. As noted, the Chelyabinsk meteor was fairly small, about 65 feet in diameter. There are much larger objects in our cosmic neighborhood, and there are still tens of thousands of uncharted NEOs of significant size. To underscore the point, nature had an asteroid conduct an uncomfortably close pass on the same day that the meteor struck Chelyabinsk.
H.R. 1022, the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act has the following mandate: “To provide for a Near-Earth Object Survey program to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize certain near-earth asteroids and comets…”
It calls for NASA to detect 90 percent of NEOs with diameters over 140 meters. But significantly, there is no plan of action in case a large object is detected on a collision course with Earth. There are plenty of scientifically sound suggestions, but there is no solid plan, no budget, no spacecraft.
If a catastrophic event were to occur on Earth—whether the devastating impact of a large asteroid or the spread of a pandemic disease or a sudden global nuclear war or a widespread EMP effect from a solar storm or the slow and inexorable march of climate change—space is the key to human survival. If something were to happen to the Earth, humanity could be saved by the presence of a base on the Moon or a colony on Mars.
We used to be in the habit of keeping printouts of important information. Now we back up our computers online. Why shouldn’t we have a backup of the most precious thing to us of all: our species?
Those who push the argument that we should not have a space program, that we should invest our energies on Earth-based, eternal issues that humanity has dealt with since we came down from the trees are ignoring that.
History has lessons for those willing to listen. The next time someone states that we should invest its time, energy and resources here on Earth and get to space “later” – ask them if they know what caused the spread of the Bubonic Plague – and what could have been done to help prevent it. It is very likely that they won’t have a clue – just like their assessment of the importance of space exploration.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.