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In Defense of Space Exploration

Matt Silver

While many in the MIT community are likely thrilled by President’s Bush’s newly announced initiative to return men to the moon, others remain more skeptical. Echoing arguments voiced this week by Democratic hopefuls in New Hampshire, some cynically suggest that, among other things, the plan is an election-year gesture, it will cost too much money, our national resources and attention should be focused on other areas (such as health-care), and that, in short, the gains from human space exploration are really not worth the effort. While such rhetoric may sound good on a campaign platform, it ignores the details of the initiative and overlooks both the tangible and intangible benefits that exploration provides. Let’s take a moment to review both the plan and benefits of space exploration in general.

First, is this an election-year stunt? The simple answer to this question, unless one puts party politics before national interest, is: who cares? Let us determine the merit of the plan based on its substance, not based on who articulated it.

Regarding cost, let’s put some things in perspective. NASA’s FY03 budget was roughly $15.5 billion. The Bush initiative calls for $1 billion in new funds spread over the next five years, and $11 billion re-allocated from existing NASA programs, resulting in an increase of $200 million a year. For comparison, the U.S. will spend roughly $400 billion on defense in 2004 -- more than the next fifteen countries combined. Congress has recently tabled the $328 billion Consolidated Appropriations Bill for FY04, which includes no less than $10.7 billion in earmarks. These are funds dedicated to particular congressional districts, often benefiting little more than a specific congressmen’s election effort. California will soon have a “bus project for Mickey Mouse at Disneyland in Anaheim,” courtesy of Uncle Sam. I hope the implication is clear: if federal over-spending worries you, the $200 million NASA initiative should not be your first concern.

Those opposed to space programs will here point out that federal over-spending in one area does not justify it in another. There are many reasons, however, why that increase and the plan that goes with it constitute wise resource allocation. First, the initiative opens the possibility for much needed change at NASA. The Columbia tragedy threw light on major internal and organizational problems at the agency. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report describes the tragedy not as an isolated incident, but as symptomatic of a broken safety and management culture in which innovation and safety often take a back seat to bureaucracy and political infighting. The bold mandate for an $11 billion internal re-organization coming from the highest levels of government will finally give NASA headquarters the authority to cancel unnecessary programs, streamline operations not consistent with the stated goal, and override political pressure that otherwise stifled change. In short, an increase of $200 million a year will greatly improve the current $15 billion annual investment in space exploration, and give NASA much-needed direction. I’m not sure the bus project at Disneyland gets the same bang for its buck.

Some, of course, maintain that the U.S. should simply not be involved in human space flight to begin with. This brings us to the classic argument of whether human space exploration in general is a good thing, worth reviewing in light of the current plans.

First, money spent on space research and development does not disappear into thin air. It goes toward creating knowledge, jobs, new businesses, and technologies, many of which have direct application to other activities. This is the spin-off argument. A moon initiative will require increased sophistication in, to name a few areas, solar-power generation, cryogenic technologies (cooling and storing liquefied gas), and human-robot interaction. These advances in the state-of-the-art will benefit energy, environment, health care, and many other areas. Many of the capabilities required for human exploration are synergistic with defense needs. Bush’s initiative will likely lead NASA and the Department of Defense to pool resources, lowering development costs for both agencies.

There will also be important scientific returns. The NASA Hubble Space Telescope has literally changed our understanding of the universe. A telescope on the moon, shielded from both solar and earth radiation, has the potential to see further into the universe than anything previously built. During the Apollo moon landings, we arguably learned more about lunar geology and the solar system in general than we could have in many decades of robotic probes. This kind of science merits government funding.

An often-ignored benefit of space activities involves its capacity to increase international cooperation and generate goodwill. A return to the moon will bring the international community together in an activity that pits man against the cosmos. An international effort will not only lower costs through the pooling of resources, it will create concrete links between the U.S., Russia, Japan, Europe, even China; and this will have tremendous symbolic over-tones.

Last, but certainly not least, while space enthusiasts often point somewhat apologetically to the benefits described above in order to justify space exploration, there is a deeper reason for their fascination. It is the same reason that gives space exploration its great symbolic weight -- the innate human desire to learn more, to see more, to explore the unknown. While this need does not easily find its way onto a budget sheet, it has an important place in society.

Stanford historian Wyn Wachorst has noted that the mythic and poetic possibilities unearthed by the space programs of the 20th century have changed us forever. Some argue that the imagery of the Apollo program -- the Earth floating above the lunar surface in a sea of black -- sparked a sea change in society that eventually resulted in the environmental movement. Exploration serves a purpose. It expands our awareness and conception of the possible. It reminds us with unparalleled immediacy that, after all is said and done, life is about more than the sum of our budgets, and that there is more to know.

Money should be spent on health care and means-tested social programs, and hundreds of billions of dollars each year are. But an important point often eludes those who argue adamantly that every last nickel should be spent on such programs: major advances --advances that benefit all humans -- rarely occur if society itself does not grow, and this can only be achieved if while we look inward at the problems before us, we do not forget to look outward and take some risks.

Matt Silver is a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program.