“Why are we spending money and effort on space exploration when we’re facing so many issues here at home? We shouldn’t go into space until we solve all our problems...
SpaceX made history when its Dragon spacecraft became the first privately-developed vehicle in history to attach to the International Space Station. Previously only governments had achieved this feat. And SpaceX is by no means the only up-and-coming space company.
Every mission and support operation is built with the labor of large aerospace corporations, along with many not-so-large businesses. Kegman Inc. is a small outfit that monitors and analyzes the wind impact during launch preparations. They helped send the Curiosity rover to Mars.
Way beyond direct jobs in the space program are the countless technologies that result from it, which companies then put to work, which puts people to work. NASA didn’t invent Tang or Teflon. But there’s a long list of real spinoffs in use all around the world every day. One company turned insulation designed for the space shuttle into everything from insoles to home insulation. Pretty boring—except to the people whose jobs it provided and the people who use it.
Environmentalism and space exploration have been inseparable ever since the first images of a small, blue globe floating in the blackness changed the human perspective on the world. Now, space-collected data is at the core of broad swaths of our knowledge of how the Earth works. Just one example is the Landsat Program, a series of Earth-observing missions that since 1972 have collected information about Earth from space, focusing on water, forests and other resources.
Europe’s Envisat is the largest Earth Observation spacecraft ever built. It carries ten sophisticated optical and radar instruments to provide continuous observation and monitoring of the Earth’s land, atmosphere, oceans and ice caps. One of its missions is monitor sea color in oceans and coastal areas. This knowledge can be converted into a measurement of chlorophyll concentration and other key data for land and atmospheric monitoring.
Track several Earth-focused missions in real time and in 3D with the amazing Eyes on the Earth site. See fresh pictures and data about carbon dioxide, sea level, ozone, ice and more.
We take it for granted so much now that it’s easy to forget that hurricane tracking and other kinds of weather monitoring and research doesn’t come from the weather station on TV—it comes from space.
After the great earthquake last year, Japan undertook a nationwide effort to better understand, prevent and cope with natural disasters. One major part of those plans calls for several new space missions.
One mission studies solar flares, powerful eruptions on the sun that can disrupt communications on Earth. Understanding them brings obvious benefits. The bonus? Technology developed for the solar instruments turns out to be great for better medical brain scans. This is the kind of story that is echoed again and again.
It’s much harder to quantify ‘inspiration.’ But harder still is to overstate how many engineers and scientists—the ones tackling the most vexing human needs—had their interest sparked and their education accelerated by the Space Race. What will the next generation have?
Considering all the destructive and expensive and pointless crusades we undertake, at least space exploration brings knowledge and know-how and forward thinking.
“The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire since the word go.” —Annie Dillard
There are no special effects in the following video. It’s actual time lapse photography from the space station.
Ask many Americans what percentage of the federal budget is taken up by NASA, and they’ll answer with something in the double digits. The actual amount? Less than one percent. Less than one half of one percent, in fact. In this famous interactive infographic by The New York Times, the space budget is represented by one of the tiny sub-squares in one of the small squares in the lower right, far too small to be labeled at this scale. Should it be a big square? Probably not. But, with a little planning, clearly science is within the fiscal reach of great nations.
According to NASA, the Mars Curiosity rover mission cost about $2.5 billion over 10 years. That's a lot of money.
According to PBS, gamblers spend about $6 billion. Actually, that's just how much they lose. In Las Vegas casinos alone. In one year.
The entire NASA budget: from the space station to climate monitoring to Saturn probes to research into fuel-efficient aircraft, is less than what the US military spends on temporary air conditioning.
(Not saying soldiers shouldn’t have air conditioning, but it does give a sense of scale.)
The MESSENGER mission to explore previously-uncharted regions of the planet Mercury—the real, actual planet Mercury—cost about $280 million.
Making the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies cost an estimated $450 million.
(It’s true that this not an apples-to-apples comparison, since one is a private venture and the other is taxpayer-funded, etc. But when you consider the mountain we spend on entertainment, sports, war and so on, it’s hard to say there’s no money in society for exploration when the payoffs are so great.)