Opinion: To Explore Is to Live, Is to Remain Human

Video Credit: Reid Gower


As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley,
I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature, Man must explore . . .
and this is exploration at its greatest.
— Dave Scott, while standing on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission, 1971


I wanted to write about new astrophysics and planetary science discoveries. But with recent news about the possible cancellation of some of the missions that provide those discoveries in the first place, it may well be that there won’t be many future discoveries to report about. So, I felt compelled to write something about that instead.

It’s no secret that we’re currently going through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Greece in particular, where I live, has been hit harder than almost any other country, due to chronic problems of mismanagement and decades of dead-end policies that magnified the recession’s effects out of proportion. In a country that is proud of its cultural past, one can now see the lack of hope for a better tomorrow in the peoples’ eyes.

But there are also countries which have the capacity to dream about that better future and provide it to their citizens, because that is the principle that they were founded on in the first place. One such country is the United States, and to me its space program represents that hope. From a very young age, I was constantly awed and inspired by NASA’s great achievements in space. It became clear to me that the space program is the road towards the future—a road that needs to be constantly built, expanded, and taken care of, for on the other end lies the promise of prosperity, wealth, and expansion for the entire human species. Yet, today the U.S. is struggling to put its finances in place, fighting to reduce a deficit that to countless many doesn’t leave any margin for hopes and dreams. But what these people fail to realise is that it’s this dire fiscal environment that demands more than ever, the need to walk that road that was opened by the past investments in space exploration, to go after these hopes and dreams and pursue the promises that this road holds.

So many people often take great issue with this latter proposition, continuously asking how can someone justify the expenses made on space when there are millions of people living in extreme poverty and when they are left homeless, jobless, and can’t secure a meal for their table?

There are two wrong notions underlying this question. The first is based on the assumption that things must always be an “either/or” case. The second is that space exploration takes vast amounts out of the annual federal budget. Let’s address these notions for a while. Concerning the first, one could point to the late Carl Sagan’s writing in his seminal “Pale Blue Dot” book: “Have we posed a false dichotomy? Isn’t it possible to make life better for everyone on Earth AND to reach for the planets and the stars?” That would require substantial social and political changes, an ultimately utopian dream, say the critics. But the U.S. has again led the way in the past, showing that revolutionary social change is indeed possible. Until nearly two centuries ago, slavery was something generally accepted. It was the cultural status quo. It was an engine for the economy, providing wealth and prosperity to those utilising it. Ending it was unthinkable. But revolutions and social changes brought it to an end, showing that economies could prosper without the use of this horrific and inhumane practice. In essence, social and political changes are nothing new. It’s what keeps countries and societies alive and vibrant in the first place.

The second notion needs a bit more explaining in order to be dispelled. We could start by asking: Is the space industry really profitable to begin with? As it turns out, it is. In 2011, it grew to $290 billion worldwide, witnessing a 12-percent growth from just the previous year! And all that happened while the world economy was still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis.

Video Credit: Callum C. J. Sutherland

And how much money does the U.S. spend on NASA, which is the nation’s civil space agency? As it turns out, not that much. For decades NASA’s budget has been below or near the 1-percent mark of the total federal budget. It’s also interesting to note that there is some vast misinformation among the American public about the size of NASA’s budget. In a study published in the Space Policy journal in 2003, written by NASA Chief Historian Dr. Roger Launius, we read that: “In 1997, the average estimate of NASA’s share of the federal budget by those polled, was 20 percent. Had this been true, NASA’s budget in 1997 would have been $328 billion. If NASA had that amount of money, it would have been able to send humans to Mars. It seems obvious that most Americans have little conception, of the amount of money available to NASA.”

Another survey made earlier this year, by the non-profit organisation Explore Mars Inc., found that 95 percent of Americans believe that NASA’s budget is somewhere between 0.75-4.11 percent of the federal budget. It’s worthy of note that, according to the same survey, when informed about the actual percentage of NASA’s budget, 75 percent of respondents were in favor of doubling it to 1 percent in order to fund a human mission to Mars.

Even if for many the 0.48 percent of the federal budget NASA currently receives is too much and that it could be better spent on other social issues, one could point them toward the long list of things that Americans spend money on every year. If one were to add up the numbers for everything that’s on that list, he would come up with a total of more than $600 billion! In essence, Americans spend nearly the equivalent of the 55-year total budget of NASA (in today’s dollars) in just a single year! And this money is spent on things that in the end, aren’t helping any social issues or feeding the poor. If we were to judge financial expenses according to their social value, one could argue then that this money is truly wasted—contrast that to the long list of NASA’s spin-offs that have consistently helped to feed the poor and hungry in many areas of the world, have saved countless lives, and helped to raise the quality of life in many respects. The argument that money spent on NASA isn’t helping things “down here on Earth” then just collapses.

Video Credit: Callum C. J. Sutherland

Indeed, spin-offs are often touted by space advocates in defense of the space program. Spin-offs represent one of the many wonderful contributions NASA has made to society. They are a set of technologies that have come out of NASA’s R&D that have been transferred over to the private sector for commercialisation and utilisation, benefiting both society and the economy. Except from literally saving lives and providing for the poor, spin-offs have provided great wealth for the economy as well. The space agency also publishes an annual journal, listing how current R&D is making all of this possible. Critics argue that although admirable, such breakthroughs could have come from elsewhere, without having the need for a space program. Putting aside this claim which is debatable at best, the fact is that these spin-offs were a consequence of the space program anyway, and they might not have existed at all otherwise.

But wait, isn’t there a more visible Return-On-Investment from the space program? If I pay x money for it, do I get any y money back? And the answer is yes. Past analyses have shown time and again the ROI of the money spent on the space program. Every dollar spent on the space program, has consistently returned a profit of $8 to $14 for the economy.

Video Credit: Penny4NASA

With so many contributions to society, to industry, and to the economy, one has to wonder why a nation would want to defund this engine of innovation and prosperity. For a nation that is interested in recovering its economy, it would be reasonable to assume that it would want to turbo-boost that engine. Yet recent events seem to imply that the trend is going toward the opposite direction.

In a stunning announcement, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a report last week listing options for reducing the U.S. federal budget deficit. What’s so stunning is that one of the options that the CBO has put on the table, is the elimination of NASA’s ENTIRE human spaceflight program! That would allegedly help the U.S. save some $73 billion during the next 10 years according to the report. Many people are quick to point out that the CBO’s reports are a standard procedure, listing options for policymakers, and that no one in their right mind in Washington, D.C. would choose to phase out the human spaceflight program anyway. But that just misses the point. The problem isn’t about this CBO proposal being taken into consideration or not. The problem is that it was proposed in the first place. It just reveals a Congress which sees the space program as something expendable when the numbers for the budget don’t add up. It reveals a mindset that doesn’t understand at all the significance of the space program to the economy, as analysed above.

“That’s like saying why leave the cave at all. How boring can you be?” – Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.

There’s a huge symbolism in the fact that the CBO’s proposal came a full 50 years after President John F. Kennedy’s assasination in 1963.

Video Credit: SpaceAdvocates

And the economy is not the only beneficiary of the space program. The deep social, political, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual transformations that the Apollo program brought to humanity, are very well understood and reported. One has to wonder, if just one human trip to the Moon can provide these long-lasting effects, then what even greater benefits await us from a more permanent settlement of the Moon and the rest of space? And the next question then follows on its own: With these great benefits, what is the real argument against conducting space exploration anyway?

“We needed a shelter to protect us from two kinds of fears: the Fear of Death and the Fear of Space. We are a diseased species and we didn’t want to win more place in the Universe – so we pretended it didn’t exist. We saw the chaos raging between the stars and we longed for calmness and stability instead.”

 — Arthur C. Clark, “The City and the Stars” (1956)

When financial arguments against space exploration prove to be invalid, critics then shift the discussion to more existential grounds. Why should we go to space anyway? What else is out there, except from barren landscapes and wastelands separated by a dangerous and deadly void? One could answer with a history lesson. Quoting from Wikipedia: “From 1405 to 1433, large fleets commanded by Admiral Zheng He—under the auspices of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty—traveled to the Indian Ocean seven times. This attempt did not lead China to global expansion, as the Confucian bureaucracy under the next emperor reversed the policy of open exploration and by 1500, it became a capital offence to build a seagoing junk with more than two masts. Chinese merchants became content trading with already existing tributary states nearby and abroad. To them, traveling far east into the Pacific Ocean represented entering a broad wasteland of water with uncertain benefits of trade.

Video Credit: Penny4NASA

The historical similarities are stunning: As did the Chinese travel seven times to the Indian Ocean during a series of what is called China’s “Treasure Voyages,” so too the U.S. undertook nine voyages to the Moon, with six landings in total. But these lunar missions didn’t lead to tapping into the vast economic wealth that the space environment could provide (besides the advancement of the satellite industry), the same way that China did not capitalise on its Treasure Voyages of the 15th century, after the end of the Ming Dynasty. There’s a huge irony here as well. The vast oceanic expanses that were seen as “wastelands with uncertain benefits of trade” by the Chinese, were finally traversed by the Europeans a few decades later, establishing new trade routes and discovering the New World, an event that changed humanity forever. The question comes naturally: If the U.S. chooses not to accept the challenge of the New World of space, who will be the new “space Europeans” to take their place?

“Civilization cannot exist without new frontiers; it needs them both physically and spiritually. The physical need is obvious—new lands, new resources, new materials. The spiritual need is less apparent, but in the long run it is more important. We do not live by bread alone; we need adventure, variety, novelty, romance. As the psychologists have shown by their sensory-deprivation experiments, a man goes swiftly mad if he is isolated in a silent, darkened room, cut off completely from the external world. What is true of individuals is also true of societies; they, too, can become insane without sufficient stimulus.”

— Arthur C. Clark, “Rocket to the Renaissance,” Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! Collected Essays, 1934-1998, 1999


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  1. Here, here! A well-stated summary of the tiny NASA budget that is mere “chump change” as I so often state. Example: eliminating the manned space program would “save” about $7 billion/ year over 10 years. And that money would go where???? Hmmm…more wasteful spending on “social programs?” Who’s kidding whom? It is infuriating to think that the United States could become a 3rd rate space faring nation! Wake up, Congress! And thank you, Leonidas.

  2. The constraint of the NASA budget is really not the truth that we are being told when there is not a overall federal budget in place and the Federal Reserve is “floating” $85B US per month to cover the current government spending shortfall…NASA has been highly successful infact I would say that this is reason for the “budget contraints”…For example the Juno Mission would have required a new nuclear power reactor to be built. My guess that it would also have the ability to power terrestrial applications which…takes money out of the pockets of current providers…The irony is that NASA is the only governmental agency that can transform the planet into a fair and balanced market economy that helps everyone on the planet….But then again maybe thats the problem as established current technologies are really not interested in competition from Market Disruptive products and services.

  3. Fantastic essay on the subject. Should be read by all the ‘no we can’t, that’s too much’ people.

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