Space exploration: Why the U.S. needs it now more than ever

14. ops. Horsehead Nebula. NASA
Image courtesy of NASA

Much to the dismay of the 34,435 supporters that signed an online petition for the U.S. to build a Death Star, the White House responded by telling them that the proposal was rejected.

To be completely fair, building a Death Star that would cost approximately $850 quadrillion is pretty outrageous considering the challenging economic times the nation currently faces—not to mention that that amount of money doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. But it brings up a good topic of discussion: Is the nation spending too much on space exploration or is it not spending enough?

Given the nation’s recent struggles to reduce the federal deficit, it is easy to understand why the United States would want to reduce its spending on space exploration. Most of that funding has been cut in recent years as many have argued that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Factually speaking, however, that’s not entirely accurate.

NASA, one of the nation’s largest public agencies, currently has a budget that is 0.48 percent of the the nation’s total federal budget. In fact, the U.S. actually spent more on the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) than it has on NASA in its 50-year history. $700 billion worth of bailout money was committed that year in the TARP program, while NASA has been given just over $500 billion since its inception 50 years ago. That’s outrageous.

Although one can make the argument that the 2008 bailouts were key investments for the future of the nation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that NASA doesn’t rake in the money either. According to NASA, for every dollar that is spent on space exploration, two dollars are directly or indirectly returned. That seems like a pretty fair investment on its own, but there is even more to consider. When NASA was at its peak in the 1960s, it received as much as four percent of the nation’s federal budget during the Apollo missions. At that time, for every dollar the United States spent on the program, nine dollars were recovered through new technologies. In other words, the more money we put into it, the more money we got out of it.

From a budgetary standpoint, it’s pretty clear that this is agency is a profit-maker. Just by looking at these sheer numbers alone, it should be a no-brainer that the U.S. ought to invest more money on it, but that just hasn’t been the case.

So there must be another issue to consider in this debate: What are the social benefits that public spending on space exploration brings to the table?

Putting aside the the sensible economic benefits that the space exploration consistently brings—as so many people do already—there are also civil benefits to consider when tackling this issue.

NASA has been responsible for more than just space research and mechanical engineering. It has a positive effect on public health, transportation and climate change. From creating bioreactors that drove advances in tissue engineering to constructing cameras that improved navigation for pilots and drivers and even to analyzers that measure greenhouse gases and airborne pollutants, it’s obvious that this agency does far more good to improve our quality of life than most people think.

The beauty of this is that the power of space exploration is not limited to just one nation. On the contrary, with agencies like NASA, there is room for international cooperation all across the world. Consider the International Space Station (ISS). The United States currently shares the station with Russia and Canada. It acts as a sort of universal laboratory where different nations are free to cooperate in the name of science. Quite frankly, it’s one of the most sensible kinds of international cooperation that exists today.

By simply glancing at these benefits, it becomes increasingly clear that public funding for space exploration is not something that’s only done just for the satisfaction of saying that we can; it’s done because it makes the nation (and the world) work smarter. It is the key to the future. Building a Death Star may be a project that’s a little far-fetched, but investing in practical missions and explorations such as Apollo, the Space Shuttle and Mars Rover—which could give humans insight as to whether or not there is life outside our planet—is clearly more advantageous than continuing to cut its budget. It’s not rocket science—pun intended—it’s simply a fact: funding space endeavors benefit us in more ways than one.

At the turn of the 19th century, chemist Humphry Davy, famous for his discovery of several chemical elements, argued in favor of the advantages of science and technology. He stated, “Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose that our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.”

Consider again the final words of that quote. Spending on space endeavors literally has the power to conquer new worlds.  It was public spending that built an orbiting space station around Earth, it was public spending that sent man to the moon and it was public spending that successfully landed multiple rovers on Mars. There are new worlds to conquer, and with the tools we have at our disposal we can do just that. We should not give up that power.

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