Why all the Push-back People?
In my profession as a sci-comm and space journalist, I am forced to deal with a fair degree of people making uninformed statements and criticisms. I know, who doesn’t, right? It’s the internet age, where connectivity has made us rich in information, but impoverished in wisdom. Yet, it is disheartening that a subject like space exploration can elicit such strong reactions from people.
Recently, these reactions were in response to Branson and Bezos conducting their much-hyped and much-publicized flights to space. Everywhere I looked, I saw the same combination of dismissal, cynicism, and indignance. It ranged from people saying that nothing was accomplished, to how this “billionaires playing in space” was a total waste, to people blaming them for lack of action on Climate Change and other pressing issues.
And it’s not just this latest tidbit of news, it seems to be symptomatic. Whenever I write about visions for space exploration or the potential for humanity becoming “interplanetary,” I get the same response — even from friends. “Shouldn’t we deal with our problems here first”? Or some variation thereof. In fact, my boss (Fraser Cain), gets asked that question so often, he even made a video about it (see below).
Where does this assumption, that space-related ventures steal focus or resources from Earth, come from? Since the arguments come in many forms, I thought I would address the ones that I hear the most individually and in detail. Overall, there are three arguments that people never get tired of making. They include:
1. “Shouldn’t we fix Earth first?”
Right off the bat, it’s assumed that going to space and dealing with issues like climate change and environmental destruction is an either/or situation. It’s not unlike saying, “we should fix the economy first, then worry about the environment.” Why do so many people think that you can do one or the other, but not both?
Furthermore, where it is written that space exploration doesn’t benefit humanity in ways that are good for Earth? The benefits for space exploration are not only legion, they are well-documented (yet somehow, not common knowledge). The Apollo Era, for example, led to technological breakthroughs that NASA made available FOR FREE to the general public.
NASA even created an office to keep track of how technologies they helped create led to commercial, medical, and industrial applications — called NASA Spinoff. Some examples include:
- Freeze-dried food
- Integrated circuits
- Solar panels
- Liquid cooling systems
- Biometric monitoring systems
- Portable defibrillator technology
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging
- Thermal blankets
- Fire-retardant materials
- Fly-by-wire systems
Since the Apollo Era, the objectives have shifted from going to space to developing the technology for long-duration missions there. To put it another way, we’ve gone from “going to space” (and “getting there first”) to “staying there.” This led to the Soviet/Russian Salyut space stations and Mir, and NASA’s Skylab, which culminated in the creation of the International Space Station (ISS).
It also gave us NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and the Soviet Buran program, which validated reusable spacecraft and the technologies that have since gone into the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the SpaceX Falcon rocket family and Starship and Super Heavy launch system, and Blue Origin’s New Shepard and (coming soon) New Glenn rockets.
In the current age of space exploration, the concept of long-duration has been extended to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This includes spaceships capable of making the journey and sustaining crews during the long flights, but also the technology for habitats and life support systems that can ensure astronaut survival in a hostile environment for extended periods of time.
This means creating closed-loop system architectures that can provide a steady supply of food, water, and breathable air in a way that is regenerative and sustainable. Guess what this technology is based on? The study of Earth, its living systems, its biomes, and the way it is constantly replenishing itself, with nothing ever going to waste.
The applications that this research and development will spawn will include the ability to grow edible plants in hostile environments, water reclamation, superior air filtration and carbon capture, and environmental engineering. As Dr. Sian Proctor, a geology professor, famous sci-comm, commercial astronaut* (and whom I count among my friends and colleagues) would say: “Solving for space solves for Earth.”
2. “It steals focus from Earth”:
Once again, the either/or assumption rears its head. Why is it assumed that going to space makes us appreciate or focus on Earth less? If anything, it makes us appreciate Earth more. This is perfectly illustrated by the Overview Effect, a phenomenon that every astronaut in the history of spaceflight has experienced.
This term was coined by noted author and philosopher Frank White, and describes the shift in consciousness that results from seeing the Earth from space — as a single entity with no borders, no divisions, and no petty disputes. In space, astronauts see the planet as the beautiful, shiny, fragile world that it is, one that is incredibly rare and precious.
Second, you have the Gaia Hypothesis, which was conceived by former NASA scientist Dr. James E. Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis. This scientific theory posits that Earth and its biological systems are all part of a huge, single entity, that is self-regulating. These systems include every organism, feedback-loop, and element working together to keep conditions within boundaries that are favorable to life.
Lovelock’s contribution to this theory resulted from the work he was doing for NASA, which entailed developing scientific instruments for modeling the atmospheres and climates of other planets (particularly Mars). By studying how Earth and other planets maintain their climates, he realized just how complex and precious Earth’s systems are.
On top of that, Earth science operations that NASA, the ESA, and other space agencies conduct (in conjunction with every environmental and scientifically-accredited organization on the planet) are the very reason we know so much about our planet and the ways in which it is threatened. Were it not for Earth Observation satellites, we wouldn’t have learned about CFCs and ozone depletion (which Lovelock discovered).
They are the reason we learned that Climate Change was taking place, beginning in the late 1960s, and how we’ve been able to monitor its progress ever since. Were it not for the atmospheric, climatological, oceanic, and meteorological studies that space-based Earth science allows for, we wouldn’t know that human agency is the number one factor affecting our planet today.
3. “Money better spent elsewhere”:
This is the most common argument I hear made whenever the subject of space exploration and humanity’s potential future in space comes up. Once more, the either/or logic comes up again, this time with a twist. It assumes that money spent on space exploration is automatically money not spent addressing things like hunger, poverty, and underdevelopment.
First of all, that’s not how budgets work. It’s not a two category thing, where any money put towards space automatically comes out of the budget for Earth! More to the point, there are absolutely NO guarantees that money not allocated for space is going to go towards something productive, like providing homes for the homeless. To think so is as misguided as it is naive.
Second, you’d be hard-pressed to find any investment with the same amount of returns that space exploration has provided over the past few generations. According to multiple studies, during the Apollo Era, every dollar spent resulted in a $7 to $8 return on investment thanks to all the spinoffs and advances it allowed for. Today, that return has climbed to $40 for every $1 spent. As investments go, you can’t beat that!
Furthermore, if we’re going to talk about “money better spent,” why are we singling out space exploration, which costs less and comes with far more payoffs than other expenditures? If you’re looking for examples, might I suggest you consider military spending and subsidies for oil and gas. In terms of the former, I can think of one particularly glaring example.
No doubt you’ve heard of the F-35 Lightning II, a fifth-generation stealth fighter developed by Lockheed Martin for the USAF and other military service branches. This plane has been in development since 2006 and was not ready for combat until 2018, due to multiple delays caused by mechanical and software issues. It was supposed to be the future of air combat, but instead has been deemed the “most expensive weapons system in history.”
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the F-35 will cost taxpayers an estimated $1.7 trillion for its entire history service. By 2036, the sustainment costs associated with USAF, Navy, and Marine Corps’ operations will reach an “affordability cliff,” where these service branches will either have to stop using the aircraft, or significantly reduce its operating hours.
Next, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the world spends roughly $5 trillion USD a year on oil and coal subsidies, which constitutes about 85% of global annual subsidies. Meanwhile, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are not only price-competitive with oil and coal, they are superseding it without the help of massive financial assistance.
In short, we spend trillions every year on the very things that are driving anthropogenic climate change. Why? So we can keep these “dirty” energy sources affordable to consumers at a time when we need to be making the transition to alternative fuels. Not only is does this make no sense from an economic standpoint, it also delays the transition — which is a matter of survival!
Now, compare those trillions spent on military systems and greenhouse gas-creating fuels to the annual global cost of space exploration. In 2018, the human race spent an estimated $72.34 billion USD on space. And what did that get us?
- NASA’s InSight lander reached Mars
- the Parker Solar Probe launched to study the Sun
- SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launched for the first time
- the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched
- China’s Chang’e-4 mission landed on the far side of the Moon
- Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission arrived on the asteroid Ryugu
- NASA’s OSIRIS-REx arrived at asteroid Bennu
- the Voyager 2 probe reaches interstellar space
- the ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission launched to Mercury
Don’t talk to me about money better spent! The money we spend on space-related science and exploration leads to all kinds of amazing returns we don’t get from anywhere else. Emily Calandrelli, another famed sci-comm, explained it very well in a TEDx talk (above).
In short, money spent on space leads to major scientific breakthroughs, betters our lives in innumerable ways, helps us to understand our climate and planet better, address climate change, and provides huge commercial dividends in the meantime. So why would anyone have a problem with money spent on space, or thinks this is where we should be diverting money from?
I’ll be honest, it all seems like hypocrisy or anti-intellectualism parading around as social concern. We all like to pat ourselves on the back for social activism. But merely talking, virtue signaling, and making cynical comments accomplishes nothing and benefits no one. And when those comments are uninformed or based on facile cliches, they are effectively useless.
Dr. Sian Proctor has been selected as the pilot for the Inspiration4 spaceflight (scheduled for late 2021), which will see an all-civilian space crew fly aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to orbit. She was also a finalist for the 2009 NASA Astronaut Class selection process.