Why Space?

“Why do we invest millions of dollars into space exploration, when we have bigger problems here on earth?” someone once asked me.

Well, the most obvious answer to this question is that space exploration satisfies a drive for discovery that is shared almost universally by humans.

“But”, I hear that same someone ask, “Is it truly worth all those millions of dollars? Shouldn’t we use the funds to help those in need?”

At the most basic level this argument is sound, however, it does not account for the multitude [1] of benefits that space travel brings to the progression of human technology, its unparalleled contributions to science, as well as the long-term monetary returns for companies and governments who invest in the exploration of the cosmos.

Perhaps the most important contribution space travel has made to society is the discovery of the solar panel, which was first used as a means of obtaining energy by the Soviet Union’s Space Program [2] on their failed mission, Soyuz-1, which aimed to transport cosmonaut Komarov to space.

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Now, solar panels, though not ready to replace traditional energy sources, are perhaps the most viable of the renewables and are used as a cheap mode of obtaining energy across the globe (where they can be afforded).

Furthermore, space travel has advanced the way in which water is purified, almost to the point of perfection. Technology designed and developed for the International Space Station by NASA to allow the recycling of water is now being used in places with high levels of drought and pollution. Space travel has also allowed for easy monitoring of water pollution through using a vast network of satellites that was previously used by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 to determine areas with high levels of water contaminants across the globe.

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Moreover, the technology used by NASA and the Canadian space program to manoeuvre their robotic arms could potentially allow the medical industry to decrease risks of surgery by allowing for finer control of surgical tools.

The Soviet space program was the driving force behind the development of memory foam, which they used in their Soyuz spacecraft to ensure that astronaut’s spines would not snap from the rigours of re-entry. Now, memory foam is often used in expensive mattresses, and to help with the reconstruction of broken bones.

So to come back to the question: is space exploration worth the millions that are invested in it?

Well, when you consider that, for every dollar invested in NASA by the US government, 14 dollars are returned (that’s an ROI of 1400%). Investment in NASA only makes up 0.5% of the US’s annual budget. Consequently, it is almost impossible to justify the opinion that NASA is a waste of money.

[1] Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration, NASA ISECG, September 2013, https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/Benefits-Stemming-from-Space-Exploration-2013-TAGGED.pdf

[2] Technically, solar panels were first used on the US Navy’s Vanguard satellite.