Why Fund Space Programs?
With a 562,000 homeless population, 39.4 million Americans living below the poverty level, and 63.1 million tons of food waste per year, many have been asking: why should we fund space programs like NASA? Shouldn’t we spend the money ending homelessness or hunger? If we take a look back at the advancements brought on from space-based research and how space programs affect our everyday life, we might be able to find an answer.
What is NASA’s Budget?
In 2020, NASA’s budget was $22.6 billion. In 2021, they requested an increase of $2.7 billion, bringing their yearly budget to $25.3 billion. But how does this compare to government spending? The estimated government budget for 2021 is set at $4.8 trillion. This leaves NASA’s budget as a measly 0.52% of government spending. If the United State’s 2021 budget was equal to $1.00, NASA’s budget would be less than a single penny.
Protecting Life on Earth
Despite their relatively low budget, NASA takes on one of the most important tasks imaginable: protecting life on Earth. It only takes one asteroid impact to completely wipe out the human race and leave Earth uninhabitable, and that’s exactly what NASA is trying to defend against.
Launching in July of 2021, NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission is designed to test technology for the deflection of potentially hazardous asteroids. The DART mission will crash a spacecraft into the asteroid (65803) Didymos in order to measure how much the asteroid is deflected. (65803) Didymos is an ideal target since it’s typical of the size of asteroids that pose a threat to Earth, and measuring its deflection will provide NASA with valuable data they can use when the need to deflect a life-or-death asteroid arises for real. It’s one thing to have a plan in place, but it’s important that we practice said plan before it’s game time.
If detected early enough, we only need to deflect an asteroid that would otherwise be heading our way by a small amount. The earlier we catch it, the less we need to deflect it, and the later we detect it, the more deflection we need to sufficiently change its course. Asteroid monitoring systems and missions like NASA’s DART are absolutely necessary if we want to protect ourselves from the only natural disaster we have the ability to stop, and could potentially save countless lives.
In the words of “your personal astrophysicist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview with NPR, “Asteroids have us in their sight. The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, so they’re not here to talk about this problem. We are, and we have the power to do something about it. I don’t want to be the embarrassment of the galaxy, to have had the power to deflect an asteroid, and then not, and end up going extinct.”
The technology required to monitor, categorize, and deflect life-destroying asteroids relies solely on the ability to gain proper funding. When the risks are so high, it’s hard to say the money is better spent somewhere else. Outside of NASA, independent organizations, such as the Planetary Society, rely on funding from the general public to educate congress of the importance of this topic.
Giving Us a Better Understanding of Home
NASA has a whole fleet of satellites orbiting around the planet that give us updates on the Earth’s condition, kind of like a doctor monitoring a patient. The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) is part of NASA’s Aqua satellite, and it’s used by weather prediction centers across the globe to improve weather forecasts, a direct link to the everyday life of the general public. If you’ve ever watched a weather forecast before making plans for the day, you may have data from the AIRS mission to thank.
“The forecast improvement accomplishment alone makes the AIRS project well worth the American taxpayer’s investment,” said Dr. Mary Cleave of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a news release from 2005.
Alongside Aqua, other satellites join together to form the Earth Observing System (EOS), and are used to measure Earth’s interior, gravity, magnetic field, carbon cycle, biogeochemistry, atmospheric composition, water cycles, ocean topography, and climate change. These satellites are vital to informing us of how climate change will affect our future, and how we can prevent further damage. They rely on proper funding to be maintained and updated.
Many pieces of technology enjoyed by the general public were created by, or directly inspired by, research at NASA. These pieces of technology are known colloquially as “NASA Spinoff Technology.”
One notable piece of NASA Spinoff Technology is the CMOS sensor that is more than likely sitting inside the camera on your smartphone. CMOS stands for Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor, and was revolutionized by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in the 90’s. Now, they are used in almost all modern digital cameras.
“CMOS imagers offer significant advantages in terms of lower power, low voltage, flexibility, cost and miniaturization. These features make them very suitable especially for security and medical applications” — Image Sensors in Security and Medical Applications by Evgeny Artyomov, Alexander Fish, and Orly Yadid-Pecht.
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is another technology used widely by citizens all over the country. NASA works closely with the United States Air Force (USAF) to improve GPS technology because of its value in space-based operations. Proper funding is required for the continued improvement and application of the GPS for use by the general public and spaceflight missions alike.
NASA’s Spinoff publication highlights the various other pieces of technology that have been directly influenced by NASA research, all of which have only come to fruition thanks to the funding of space programs. Other Spinoff technologies include:
- The Ejenta system that allows doctors to monitor patients remotely.
- Inexpensive ventilators to aid patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Remote sensing technology that helps firefighters track forest fighters.
- Satellite imagery that helps track the use of freshwater for crops.
- The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) used to reduce foodborne illness, keeping the food in supermarkets safe for consumption.
- The Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) that detects methane gas.
- Psionic lidar scanners used in self-driving cars.
- Impact absorbing foam used in aircraft seats and improved bra designs for a more comfortable fit.
More examples of NASA Spinoff Technology can be found at spinoff.nasa.gov. Without NASA’s funding, many pieces of technology used to save lives and improve day-to-day life simply would not exist.
Countdown to Extinction
Even if we can get past all of the obstacles facing the human race; asteroids, climate change, population growth, etc, our time on Earth is still limited. This is because the Sun, which is necessary for life on Earth, will eventually die out.
The Sun is currently converting hydrogen into helium within its core, but it won’t continue doing that forever. Eventually, it will transition from a stable yellow dwarf into a red giant, where its shell will increase in size so much that it will overtake the orbit of Mars and heat Earth to uninhabitable temperatures. The overheating will cause the oceans to quite literally boil and evaporate into space, leaving Earth a barren, dry, rock orbiting the much larger red giant star. Surely, this won’t be a very jolly time for life on Earth, and it will be absolutely necessary for humans to set up colonies on planets around other stars before this happens if we want to continue existing as a species. It will require extensive advances in space-faring technology and worldwide cooperation between nations that can only be accomplished by the continued funding and advancement of space-based research. Without space-based research, the human race lives with a countdown timer to extinction.
This article is a condensed summary of a manuscript published via arXiv titled “The Importance of Funding Space-Based Research” by Devan Taylor. The full text with references can be found here. This article is dedicated to David Andrew Taylor.