NASA and the Scientific Divide

Posted: November 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Science, Technology | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Recently, I met a man who walked the surface of the moon. After his brief talk, we were invited to ask him questions. One surprising question was, “Why waste money on space exploration?” Coming from a background of hard science, I found this question jarring. “How can someone not want to explore space?” The man who once walked the moon seemed similarly disconcerted. As he struggled to answer in terms that resonated with the layfolk, the intellectual disconnect was agonizing.

NASA is in an era of highly publicized disasters, with increasingly boring or technical missions. These issues only look to get worse; budget woes will leave us without manned spaceflight for at least 4 years, and our backup plan is to buy trips on Russian rockets. With less and less exciting missions, and the public’s lack of scientific interest and understanding, it is easy to see why our generation has become apathetic to NASA’s mission. However, despite its apparent recent struggles, NASA has an extensive resume of accomplishments and contributions to our society, which few people realize.

In the past 51 years, NASA has achieved that which was once thought impossible — we have sent people to live in space, we have landed on another body in the solar system, we have sent probes out of our solar system, we have landed probes on other planets. To accomplish this, NASA has, out of necessity, developed technologies we now take for granted, from improved artificial limbs to enriched baby foods.

Even without such useful spin-offs, NASA and other government space research programs have created a space-travel infrastructure, pouring the billions necessary to develop techniques such as putting satellites into orbit. Such high-risk, high-cost expenditures are unlikely to have been pursued by private enterprises, as they would not even have the funds to accomplish these programs. These technologies are available in the private sector, opening up new industry applications in communications, private space travel, and privately funded research.

The scientific research that NASA has provided is staggering. From moon samples, to Jupiter probes, to space telescopes, to extra-solar probes, to weather satellites and space-based geological research, NASA has provided unique and invaluable resources to biologists, geologists, chemists, meteorologists, physicists, astronomers, and more. This research has fueled discoveries whose value cannot yet be known.

Here is a brief history lesson. In 1803, President Jefferson asked Congress to allocate $2,500 to an expedition to explore the Missouri river, hoping to discover the extent of the Louisiana purchase and a path to the Pacific Ocean. Without knowing what would be found, the Corps of Discovery mapped the Missouri River, discovered over 100 new species, and made the first mineral maps describing one of the most resource-rich regions on our planet. Our explorations, discoveries, and established diplomatic presence in the area allowed the US to maintain full control over the most geopolitically valuable regions of the world — the Mississippi-Missouri drainage basin. With this transportation conduit, the vast resources discovered in the west, the massive tracts of arable land, and enormous strategic depth, the US was able to position itself as an unrivaled economic, military, and political hegemon.

None of these outcomes were expected or anticipated. The purchase was a gamble and the expedition was a gamble. The results helped fuel 2 centuries of growth. Do we want to turn our backs on the next great frontier? Are we willing to cede the future to India and China, both of whom are aggressively developing space programs? I would hope that anyone who wishes to protect our future prosperity and security can see that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no”.

Fortunately, it seems that the public agrees. However, as the Apollo generation ages, and our generation gains more influence in policy, NASA’s support will be in jeopardy if we cannot convince ourselves that our future is worth fighting for.