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.