Every time a launch into outer space hits the headlines, the same question arises: why do we keep spending astronomical amounts of money on investigating outer space when we have so many problems down here? While it is true that the resources put towards space programs could fund programs to solve social issues on Earth, we also need to acknowledge the advances made by launching teamsinto space. Only through these expeditions have we have been able to develop new technology and keep on making discoveries back home on Earth.
Some of the benefits that space exploration has brought us span from advances in medicine to enhancing security on Earth. According to NASA, the experiments aboard the International Space Station include research into Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer, the development of new water purification systems, methods to combat muscle atrophy and bone loss, monitoring our planet, and many others. These examples are just fragments of what we have been able to do thanks to our interest in space. In fact, the space race during the Cold war provided many of the inventionsthat we use on a daily basis, such as artificial limbs, firefighting equipment, wireless headsets, baby formula, camera phones, portable computers, and athletic shoes.
The advancements and benefits are not the only reasons to keep exploring, however. Due to the space programs and agencies developed over the years it has been possible to make breakthrough discoveries at the International Space Station which remains one of “the most ambitious international collaborations ever attempted”, according to its website. The ISS brought together 5 space agencies and 15 countries in 1998 for the assembly of what we know today, this took 10 years and 30 missions to complete.
Humanity’s quest for understanding what lies beyond our atmosphere has brought improvements to our daily lives andboosted international cooperation for a common goal. It has inspired many to follow a career in this field. On the other hand we find positions like those of Robin Hanbury-Tension, an English explorer, who stated that with the environmental problems we are facing, the amount of resources spent on space programs is a waste. “If the collapse of civilisations is a recurrent theme, we should be looking for ways of managing the planet’s resources in order to make how we live sustainable. The way to do that is not to go charging off into Space, wasting unbelievable quantities of money in pursuit of some chimera that we might in one day come back with some valuable mineral.”. The explorer only took the climate change angle, but there’s also hunger, overpopulation, and migration at the top of the list.
If we take a look at the budget of NASA, however, it is a very small percentage (0.5% of U.S spending in 2020, about 22.6 billion) compared to the 714 billion spent on defense. The argument used by Hanbury-Tension puts the focus on what could be done with that portion spent on space exploration, but even if it was not used towards that end, there is no guarantee that a government will use it for social matters as noted by Matthew Williams
In February, when the Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars and the cost of the mission, $2.7 billion, was once again a hot topic, debates were held around the expenditure of this endeavor. The concern over why we keep on sending robots to another planet while our own is in trouble is valid, but it has been thanks to this mission that scientists got to fly a helicopter on a different planet while also exploring the Jezero crater, which scientists believe was a lake in the past, and thus answering the question whether there has been life or conditions for it in Mars. This was the first of its kind in history and Perseverance is also expected to be the foundation for the first Martian soil samples to return to Earth.
From flybys in 1965, to satellites in the Red Planet’s orbit and rovers roaming its land, missions to Mars have helped us advance science, create new technologies and try to find answers to the age-old questions ‘are we alone in the universe?’ and ‘where did life originate?’. These goals are also achieved by launching new satellites and telescopes that will help us further understand the 13.8-billion-year-old universe that we inhabit.
We are a species of explorers; humans have looked up at space for hundreds of years - making astronomy the oldest natural science. It is thanks to this curiosity that many breakthrough discoveries have been made, such as discovering the forms in our galaxy, age and stages of our sun and other stars, black holes, dark matter, how stars are born, light speed, and countless others. Scientists estimate that we have only explored about 4% of the observable universe, since the other 96% is made of unknown elements referred to as dark matter and dark energy. Developing the technology for understanding the remainder will help us solve some of the humanitarian issues we are facing, as many other advancements derived from space programs have proved to do. As noted by former astronaut Ron Garan, solar powered refrigerators made their debut in 2011 thanks to development at one of their bases which has improved the lives of people with little access to electricity.
I will not deny that the crises we see daily are worrying and that the efforts made to solve them need to be amplified but halting investment in scientific research and space exploration is not the solution. With the continuing missions and knowledge derived from them not to mention the observatories on Earth, we can only expect to keep moving forward as a planet and hope to solve the questions that have haunted us for centuries with what we learn from space. Even if it is hard to put a monetary value in our heads to this advancement.
Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro
Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.