Why we should explore space

by DaniGirl on July 13, 2005 · 11 comments

in My inner geek

This is for Nancy, because she asked.

I, too, watched the space shuttle explosion in 1986, and the more recent Columbia disaster in 2003 (or was it 2002?) and I remember crying my heart out watching the coverage. But I still believe that the space program needs more, not less, funding.

For a really great list of spin-off benefits from the US space program, visit The Space Place:

One of the many spinoffs from the Hubble telescope is the use of its Charge Coupled Device (CCD) chips for digital imaging breast biopsies. The resulting device images breast tissue more clearly and efficiently than other existing technologies. The CCD chips are so advanced that they can detect the minute differences between a malignant or benign tumor without the need for a surgical biopsy. This saves the patient weeks of recovery time and the cost for this procedure is hundreds of dollars vs. thousands for a surgical biopsy. With over 500,000 women needing biopsies a year the economic benefit, per year, is tremendous and it greatly reduces the pain, scarring, radiation exposure, time, and money associated with surgical biopsies.

Other technological spin offs from the space program cover everything from golf ball aerodynamics to doppler radar (weather) imaging to improvements to school bus design and even better baby food.

Of course, this only covers some of the practical things we have learned in the pursuit of space. To me, it’s not even half of the best argument. For a more poetic description of why we should continue to explore space, please do take a moment to read the Bad Astronomer on this subject. He’s a terrific writer! Make sure you read the comments, too. No really, go! It’s important.

And on a completely unrelated but perhaps not so unrelated after all topic, have you guys seen Google Earth yet? So way wicked cool you have to see it to believe it! Google sightseeing has now gone international as well.

So, now you know how I feel about it – what do you think? Is it worth it to explore space?


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrea July 13, 2005 at 8:10 pm

I vote yes.
But then I am enough of a geek to think that knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge are goods in and of themselves, and do not need utilitarian justifications. Just like the particle colliders, and big telescopes, and other big-ticket research items. It shouldn’t all be about what we get out of it. It’s just good to know things.
And I think the homeless thing is often a bit of a red herring–the fact is that military spending and tax cuts to the rich cost way more than the space program ever will. NASA is not why people are living on teh streets.
But ultimately I just think that the pursuit of knowledge and expanding the borders of the known are inherently good things to do.

2 UberGeek July 13, 2005 at 8:52 pm

Because it is there, because we don’t know all the answers and mostly because it is the journey and not the destination that matters the most.
I agree the multiple tragedies of the space program have cost us dearly in life and money.
It did not start with the space shuttle
June 29, 1971
Soyuz 11: Soviet cosmonauts Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov and Georgy Dobrovolsky were found dead in their space capsule after re-entry.
April 25, 1967
Soyuz 1: Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed in a crash landing of his country’s new multi-purpose space capsule.
Jan. 27, 1967
Apollo 1: American astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed by a fire in the Apollo 1 space capsule.
This does not include the trillions of dollars that have been spent on global space programs over the last 30 years. Trillions of dollars that could have been directed towards illness research, famine and disease. With the EU,the Japanese and the Chinese creating their own space programs there will be other tragedies.
So why do we continue?

3 UberGeek July 13, 2005 at 8:52 pm

It is my belief that one of the key factors that define humanity is the search for knowledge. Yes, conscience and morals and the social agreement are also factors, but above all else we strive to be more than what genetics gave us. As humans we rise above our habitat and alter it. We modify our surrounding and learn from the process. That process is often destructive and violent. I will not argue that it has often been achieved at a terrible price. In one hand I hold WW II, the holocaust, Tiananmen Square and the Sand Creek Massacre, but in the other I offer you Da Vinci, The Boulder Dam, Mozart, the Polio Vaccine, The Suez Canal, and Insulin.
The space program is an extension of our search for knowledge, a search that defines us a human. I see that search as fundamental in the continuance of our species.
Maybe one day our search, whether in the depth of the oceans, the mysteries of genetic encoding, or in the reaches of space we will find the answers and take that last step.

4 SilverCreek Mom July 13, 2005 at 9:36 pm

Well…I guess I vote Yes & NO…
Some people are dying here on earth for lesser reasons that exploring space. I want to know what’s out there and if your ready to die for it it’s your choice. Although I do think the money would be put to better use in the school system ANYWHERE!

5 suze July 14, 2005 at 12:46 pm

I think it’s very important to continue with the space program, despite the risks, and the tragedies that have come before. We’re learning more about the universe around us than ever before. I took astronomy this year as one of my science electives, and new discoveries were being made almost daily. anything that helps us understand our world and the universe around us is worthwhile, i think.

6 nancy July 14, 2005 at 1:42 pm

Hmmm…still kinda thinknig about this one. I was mainly talking about humans – why we send them into space. I do believe in research and expanding our knowledge, etc. Like, satellites which help forecast the weather, cellphones for communication, and the like – agreed. But they can send those up without humans going along for the ride.
I am not well educated in this area, so thanx for the quick tutorial Dani. And Andrea – my use of ‘homeless’ as an example was just my first and lame attempt at trying to I.D. something within our society that I personally think needs a little more attention than it gets – along with all the other regular contentious social issues. (like military as well)
Anyway, my children are wanting my time, and I will go play with them, who knows, maybe we will play spaceman today?

7 Snack Mommy July 14, 2005 at 2:01 pm

I’m glad Nancy questioned this topic. I too, have always questioned the mind numbing sums of money that have gone to the space program. My husband supports it, however, I cannot say “knowledge for the sake of the pursuit of it” should be prioritized over funding for illnesses that are killing so much of our population.
I am not saying it should be abandoned all together. But really, trillions of dollars? Can we really and truly agree that this is without out a doubt the place that our public funds gets the greatest benefit?
Feel free to say a big fat I told you so if the space program somehow cures cancer one day.
Snack Mommy

8 Running2Ks July 14, 2005 at 3:41 pm

Exploring space is noble, but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of “wherever you go, there you are” that we need to realize. We are so screwing up our own planet and our cultures are at war. Do we really deserve to be putting that “out there”? And yeah, I got the Google Earth thing from Big Learning and I found my house and it feels a bit “Big Brother”, but it’s soooo coool!

9 Andrea July 14, 2005 at 7:18 pm

*thread hijack*
Yes, but it doesn’t cost trillions of dollars. It costs billions of dollars; annually, less than 1% of the US federal budget is spent on the space program. If every penny were drained from NASA and put directly into social programs, we would not make an appreciable dent in human suffering. Not in the US, and certainly not globally.
This is what I meant when I said that the homeless thing is a red herring–people complain about the space program because they figure the money could be better spent “here.” Without truly understanding how small the amount is (in relative terms) and how huge the need is. It would be like saying, I tell you what: Let’s stop spending any money on art education in public schools and put it all into foodbanks instead. But the money spent on art education isn’t enough to help the food banks, and in the meantime, kids aren’t learning about art–which might not be “practical,” but is still important.
I found two links to articles that make a good summary of the relevant arguments:
http://www.spacedaily.com/news/oped-04b.html
http://chapters.nss.org/letters/archives/2004/01/
One item I found particularly interesting in #2 was the link between the space program, its related research, and the insulin pump I wear every day to treat my diabetes. I can’t even tell you the huge difference my pump has made ot my quality of life in living with this chronic illness. This pump might not be the cure for cancer, but it is adding years of health to my life.
So–how do you go about putting a price tag on that?
I have to say I find it somewhat troublesome to hear that advances benefiting my life and health (not to mention the knowledge gained from these explorations) are worth less than half the cost of what Americans spend anually on their pets. Which is what the space program costs.

10 Danigirl July 15, 2005 at 12:51 pm

Damn, Andrea and ! And damn, ÜberGeek! I don’t know whether I’m insulted or thrilled that you made my argument so much more eloquently than I did. Can’t decide if I’m feeling shown up or just glad you showed up and said it right!
Maybe I should just hand over the reigns to you guys! That’s two days in a row you done better than me!!
xo Danigirl

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