Category Archives: Earth and Planetary Sciences

Five arguments for the continued exploration of space

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Exomars has cost $1.3 billion, the Apollo program cost $20 billion, and the International Space Station, $150 billion. With austerity still biting and strain on our public services, the huge sums of money involved in space exploration beg the question; is it worth it? I have this argument a lot, normally with distant relatives who seem to appear only at Christmas to question me on everything from my degree to the jeans I wear (we all have THAT uncle right?). So as rehearsal for my upcoming battle, here are my five arguments for continued investment in space exploration.

1. It’s really not that much
Ok, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. If you are anything like me then trying to manage rent, tuition fees and food on a monthly basis is a struggle; by the end of the month I’m rooting through my coat pockets trying to find an elusive tenner to get me through to pay day. $1 billion could really come in handy. But this is not personal wealth, this is government money. The numbers are beyond the budgets of normal people. NASA’s annual budget is $18.4 billion. That’s out of a budget of $3.8 trillion. To put it in context, that works out at $7.57 a year per taxpayer, or 63 cents a month. In Europe it’s even less; the European Space Agency’s budget is €5.26 billion. With a population of 510 million that’s only 85 cents a month. 85 cents isn’t going to pay my rent, it’s not going to dent my tuition fees, and I don’t want to know what kind of food it will buy. It won’t even pay your Netflix subscription so you can watch The Martian, but it will actually get us to Mars. Sounds like a good deal to me.

2. It makes us money
Yes, there is a headline cost, but there are economic gains as well. First of all the government-funded space industry employs hundreds of thousands of people directly, and there are indirect jobs and wealth created as well. Telecommunications, transportation, large-scale farming, and many other sectors employ millions of people, and in the modern world, these industries rely on satellites and other space-related technology. On top of that there are now a growing number of private sector companies cashing in on the advances and opportunities of space technology, from the billionaire-backed behemoths of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, to the small but growing local companies like Surrey Satellite Technology. All of these companies employee people and pay tax, in a commercial field that is growing exponentially. In a globalised economy where jobs and expertise can be exported at a moment’s notice, the highly-skilled roles required by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) employers are better paid and more secure. The jobs our children will eventually do probably don’t even exist yet, and they may never exist if we stop funding advanced science.

3. It keeps us safe
There’s the obvious benefit of military and defence technology that spins off from space research but there is also a less obvious way in which it helps preserve the peace. Ever heard of Space Station Freedom? No? Well there’s a good reason for that. It was announced as a US space station by then-president Ronald Reagan, but it never materialised. There were a number of reasons, but one of the significant ones was the end of the cold war. Instead of building their own station, The US decided to put aside decades of enmity and cooperate with Russia on the International Space Station. Why? In part it was an attempt to build bridges with a defeated enemy, but another factor was the end of the arms race; the western world didn’t fancy the idea of a lot of unemployed rocket scientists wandering around the world looking for a pay cheque. The ongoing success of the ISS and numerous other space missions have helped to maintain diplomatic contact at times of geopolitical strain, and fostered a spirit of cooperation in a world of competition. It’s hard to quantify just how much impact this has had, but when it comes to preserving global peace, every little helps.

4. It helps you win water fights
No really. The technology that created supersoaker water guns was invented by NASA for space exploration. As was memory foam. Cordless vacuums; NASA. Insulation, scratch-resistant lenses, artificial limbs, smoke detectors, hearing aids, CAT scans, water filters, freeze-drying, landmine-removal technologies and solar power; all NASA, all as a result of the space program. Space exploration is hard and we have to solve unimaginable problems to succeed, and in doing so we create technologies that can change people’s lives. Who knows what breakthroughs we will miss out on if we stop.


So, there are four good answers. These are the answers I use for economists and accountants, for politicians and the military. But they are not my answer. My answer is just four words:

It’s what we do.

A few hundred thousand years ago we stood upright and we left the caves, we walked the African plains and we crossed the oceans. Space is what’s next. All too often the story of humankind is one of death, destruction and horror. We are the species that produced Hitler, Stalin and Charles Manson. But this is not what defines us; yes, we have to take responsibility for murderers and dictators, but we have also created Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Chaucer, da Vinci and van Gogh, Einstein, Feynman, Sagan. We don’t listen to symphonies, marvel at great art or read profound literature for any practical reason. It doesn’t pay our bills, but it does something much more important; it reminds us what it is to be human. Curiosity, cooperation, the exploratory spirit. It unites us, it gives us something to be proud of, something to strive for, it connects us to our fellow man. Whether its Cassini’s stunning images of Saturn’s icy rings, Hubble’s awe-inspiring views of distant nebulae, the people we sent to walk the surface of the moon, or the people we will send to walk on Mars. This is what we are capable of together. This is what we do.


My Map and Thesis

Some people would say that university life involves copious amounts of time reading book after book in the library (in addition to visits to the SU, of course). It has to be said that the same can be true for those of us in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The added bonus for us is that in our third or fourth year,  instead of the dissertation required for most subjects, we instead undergo a Map and Thesis. In simple terms, this requires Geologists (Planetary and Environmental Geology students get to do something else) to go into a previously unvisited area and create a geological map from scratch. This is accompanied by a written thesis containing all of our observations, scientifically-based interpretations, and an overview of the entire history of the area linking our own work to that done previously by academics.

Birkbeck Geology students do a lot of work in the northern tips of Scotland due to the beautifully-exposed outcrops and the wide variety of ages of metamorphic and igneous rocks, the oldest being about 3.5 billion years old. The weather experience has not always been the best, however, so instead, our little group decided we wanted to go somewhere completely different (and rather warmer). After relatively little deliberation, we agreed to carry out our project in Spain, a country that has a much nicer climate and a wide range of geology that would prove to be a challenge but also ensure the production of a map that would showcase our skills and knowledge acquired as young geologists.



All we needed now was a supervisor to guide us through the data collection phase in Spain and the creation of the final product (due March 2017). Very fortunately for us, Professor Charlie Bristow (Professor of Sedimentology) was on hand. His wealth of knowledge and experience working in Spain would prove to be much more than just useful.

My project took place between the 10th of July and the 21st of August. We stayed in a small house in the town of Ayerbe (in the province of Huesca) close to Zaragoza (the capital of the Autonomous Community of Aragon, the northernmost region of Spain). The mapping area cuts through two different municipalities, Peñas de Riglos and Murillo de Gállego. It also centres around the Gállego river which is one of the main tributaries of the Ebro, an important river in the Iberian Peninsula. The area is popular for hiking and watersports on the river (which is relatively fast flowing down from the reservoir) and for bird watching due to the various breeds of vulture, falcon, buzzards and numerous other species that inhabit the ridges and cliff faces.


One half of the first impressions of the terrain were those of confusion. It is a well-known fact that universities will always use the best specimens of rocks, fossils etc. in order to allow students to see what things should look like. It is also quite a well-known reality that this is not the case when it comes to fieldwork and actually things in real life look quite different when they have been pounded by rain and baked by sunshine for thousands of years. The opening photo for this article is one of my favourite for showing this. On first inspection, you might think there were only two maybe three rock types in this photo when in fact, there are five. As you can imagine, 6 weeks of trying to decipher which was which took some effort even towards the end. The second half of the first impressions were along the lines of ‘why is everything up?’. To put this into context, before we left for Spain, we had to produce some base maps. These are what geologists use to show the terrain and then we ‘colour in’ the geology over the top. In order to do this, we used satellite imagery from Google Earth. In order to work out the correct scales (standard is 1:10000 which meaning each centimetre on the map represents 100 metres) we have to flatten the elevation meaning that we completely forgot that to get anywhere, we needed to climb.

Life in Spain quickly settled into a routine. Unlike the hustle and bustle of London, the town of Ayerbe was quiet and relaxed. The shops even took 4 hours off in the afternoon for siesta time. Our days consisted of fairly early starts although, our whole group was made up of two girls and four guys, the guys (I admit my guilt) were not that great at early starts and usually required the odd stern look. A short drive to the mapping area itself, a small debate on what time we would finish and then we were off in our pairs poised to collect our data. Temperatures regularly reached about 33°C by 2pm, and we were usually exposed in the open due to the lack of cover, so that is when we usually called it a day and headed back to base camp. The evenings were equally warm, in fact I think the house we lived in was designed to trap the heat resulting in me having to sleep on the sofa for 6 weeks. Needless to say, a memory foam mattress was gladly received when I returned back to the UK. We were lucky that the standard student craving for all things pasta could also be indulged and made up a good 80% of our evening meals.


As I mentioned earlier, the places that we visit as Birkbeck students include mostly igneous and metamorphic rocks (cast your minds back to GCSE geography – rocks from volcanoes and rocks that have been changed). In our area, it was all sedimentary rocks. Something most people might know is that they are the most likely places to find fossils and Spain did not disappoint. For us, being able to identify the fossils was particularly important as dependant on what they were would influence our interpretations on the rocks they are found in, things such as age, type of environment the animals lived in etc. Although at the time of writing I am only just starting to get into the meat of my thesis, first impressions shows us that the area that is now Spain had a plethora of living things and that we are lucky enough to see them fairly well-preserved to this day. The fun part was trying to find them, mostly achieved by hours of looking through hand lenses whilst trying to balance in awkward positions on the rock faces. Lucky for us, a large quantity of the exposures were found on the side of a main road that ran adjacent to the river through our area. By the third week, we didn’t even notice the odd looks from passing Spanish drivers, presumably wondering why a group of youths bearing clipboards, hammers and eternally confused expressions were stood staring at rocks.

All Geology students have to do the Map and Thesis. It is a rite of passage, and something that those in the profession talk about for years to come. Mine was no different and although a huge challenge mentally, one I’m sure will pay off……hopefully with a 1st!


Follow Tom on Twitter: @TWD_1988