Space As a Remedy for Solving Society's Problems
I have a long answer and a short answer to a posting I read on Facebook. Rather than go over-long there, I have decided to post the answer here. Here's what one FB fan wrote about funding the space program:
you rocket scientists need to come up with a way to address the world's social problems upfront and center for good, and then you won't have to see technology competing with social Idiocracy beyond your control.
Sorry, after living in So Cal for the past decade, I see social decay that is hard to ignore, so I don't understand, if we can't even design a system to solve our own deep social problems on Earth (i.e. the concept of non-conditioned/created 'enemies') first, what business do we have hypothesizing spreading of the still nuclear-war rigged human condition elsewhere?
First, let's translate this into the real, most-often-asked question of space advocates: "Why should we spend all that money on space when there are so many more important things to be done here on Earth?" The specific variant the poster asked was, "Why can't the space program be used to solve social problems here on Earth?" The short answer is: it can't, but that's not why it's there.
Hereafter follows the long answer.
Let's start with the concept of "more important." That is, of course, a value judgment. One might ask, "What is more important, understanding better how the universe functions or having enough to eat?" Now the Earth-firsters will think that having enough to eat is the no-brainer "right" answer.
Investments in New Knowledge and Technology Always Pay Off
But consider: if some part of this nation is engaged in fundamental research about the way, say, the Earth's ecosystem works, they could find new, more efficient, more productive, less harmful ways to use land or grow crops. Such second-hand effects, typically called spinoffs, inevitably lead to new knowledge that allows other segments of society to benefit. The process runs as follows:
Learn about the Earth ==> Use the land better ==> Grow more food ==> Food becomes cheaper ==> Fewer starving people
Is this a direct path? No. But it is a concrete, real-world explanation of how investments in space can help reduce social problems like hunger.
Why Investments in Technology Have an Advantage Over Direct Aid
The next argument from the previous discussion would be: "Why not spend that money directly on the poor and hungry here on Earth and eliminate all those intermediate steps?"
Let's start with the federal budget...we'll use 2008, a budget which has already passed. This relatively modest budget (compared to the $3.7 trillion for '09) included $17.3 billion for NASA. The budget for unemployment payments, welfare, and other direct transfers of wealth (entitlements) was $324 billion. That means that welfare spending is nearly 19 times as much as what is spent on government-funded civilian space activities. If you don't like that example, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as of 2007, had cost the taxpayers $368 billion--21 times NASA's budget--and that doesn't even include the regular Department of Defense budget, which was another $481 billion, or nearly 28 times NASA's budget. Throw in Medicare and Medicaid totaled up to $1.2 trillion for 2008, and you get over 69 times the NASA budget. "All that money on space?" Really, now.
But let's return to the social welfare example, which addresses the questioner's original concern--aid to the poor, social welfare, and direct aid to people in need of some sort. At $324 billion a year, the government spent over $887 million a day in direct welfare payments. That means, if you zeroed out NASA's budget and turned all those funds over to welfare, you'd help feed those folks for 19 days. So, great: you've fed folks at a slightly higher level for just under three weeks. What opportunity costs have you given up by spending that way?
Spending NASA's budget directly on welfare doesn't make sense, in part because that money is not doing much more than being consumed in the form of food, shelter, and clothing, and once consumed is gone. Now consider the opportunity costs you missed out on by not spending that $17.3 billion on space technology. You miss out on:
- The new satellite(s), which bring you the data that teaches you about the environment.
- The new technologies built into the satellite, such as new cameras, sensors, and electronics, all of which advance the state of the art and can be used for applications here on Earth.
- The jobs created by building the hardware, infrastructure, and research that led to increased scientific knowledge and better farm productivity, which led to better living standards for everyone, not just the poor individual receiving a check. And note that not all of these jobs are of the "rocket scientist" (aerospace engineer) or environmental scientist variety. There are white-collar workers, such as logisticians, accountants, and administrative assistants, who are employed by NASA and the companies supporting the programs. Blue-collar workers are hired to build the launch towers and rockets, drive the trucks that transport raw materials and hardware, and yes, clean the offices and maintain the grounds of the various facilities needed to support the space program. A job is a social program because the person having one usually does not need to receive welfare. They're a taxpayer.
The Specific Advantage of Space Hardware Over Earth-Based Investments
The next argument is likely to be, "Why not spend money on Earth-based technologies (e.g. an improved plow, better crop technologies, etc.) instead of going off into space?" That is being done, both by government and the private sector. However, research into space technologies is unique because space itself is such a unique and challenging environment in which to work.
Human beings have been living on this Earth for thousands of years. All in all, it's safe to say that this world is a known quantity, and there are things we take for granted, like our gravity, atmosphere, range of temperatures, and plant and animal life. Orbital space and the planets, asteroids, and comets all have extreme environments completely outside regular human experience: no atmosphere, too much atmosphere, zero gravity, microgravity, massive gravity, poisonous chemicals and solids in the air and on the surface, temperatures ranging from nearly Earthlike to beyond boiling to so far below that it's nearly "absolute zero." Any time we send spacecraft or people to these places, and so far we've only gone as far as the Moon, we must build high-performance machines that must accelerate out of our gravity well and then function perfectly in those extreme environments, thousands or millions or billions of miles away. And once the machines or people arrive at their destination, they must gather more information using whatever instruments have been brought with them--and all those instruments have to function perfectly, or nearly so, or millions/billions of dollars have been lost.
The challenges of all this work have been immense, and it has been NASA that has given Americans justifiable bragging rights having sent the first machines to the outer solar system and the first men to the Moon, as well as having built telescopes that have seen billions of light-years away. Space exploration has greatly increased our technological capabilities here on Earth because it has required us to build machines we would never have thought of or needed here on our relatively safe mother planet. It is only by building machines capable of surviving in space that we have lucked upon spinoffs and new uses for them here on Earth--a process philosophy writer and teacher Gonzalo Munevar calls the principle of serendipity. The principle is simple enough to understand: if we hadn't gone into space in the first place, we would never have created the spinoffs that made our lives better once we turned that technology back toward addressing problems here on Earth.
Overcoming Ignorance--The Value of Space Exploration to Education
NASA's primary job is not to educate the public, though the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created the agency in 1958, authorized NASA to engage in partnerships with educational institutions to accomplish its mission. It also provides educational outreach opportunities by sharing information about its hardware and discoveries with students, teachers, the media, and the general public.
While I must admit that it gets to sound corny after awhile, NASA really does inspire kids to study difficult subjects. While I was too young to witness it firsthand, Apollo 11 inspired me to want to write for NASA. Others have gotten interested in studying math or science. The process works this way:
Again, it's not a straight path from spending on space exploration to solving social ills, but the importance of inspiration in education cannot be overlooked. With inspiration comes hope, a desire to improve, and a future productive citizen. An inspired, motivated, hard-working kid with dreams and goals is not going to turn to drugs and gangs to find fulfillment because they've got something more important and more rewarding to do.
The nation invests in space exploration ==> NASA's space probes or astronauts do incredible things ==> kids watch and get inspired ==> kids study and learn ==> kids get older, get advanced degrees, and get jobs [if not at NASA, then in some technical field that gives them satisfaction] ==> the next generation goes on to inspiring, difficult things
The Rising Tide
And what about the future, and the problems it poses to adult citizens today? We hear a lot about resource crunches, increased pollution, and increased tension in world politics because we're fighting over one small planet. It doesn't have to be that way.
Our solar system is rich in energy--from space solar power to the untapped potential of helium-3 fusion--and metallic resources from the lunar crust, asteroids, and comets. We don't yet know how to tap these resources, but we owe it to ourselves to try and learn how, if only to ensure a better future for all of us--Americans and non, friends and enemies. If we successfully develop space-based forms of energy, enough energy to prevent another Gulf War or two, that certainly has to be worth 19 days' worth of welfare payments.
So, again, to answer the question of whether space exploration can be used to solve society's problems, the answer is, no, it can't, but it can address societal problems along the way. It all depends on how we choose to define what a "societal problem" is, and what it's worth to seek for new knowledge and better solutions to fix them.
Bart Leahy is a technical writer living in Huntsville, Alabama.