Words: Kseniia Mikushina (She/Her)
Every year about half a million children die because of malaria, a very curable disease. Today, roughly 1,700 people will die of hunger. Untested rape kits, modern slavery, and water contamination are haunt. Yet it feels like people in power are more willing to spend money on space exploration and new technologies than on the pressing issues mentioned above. Shouldn’t we be solving problems on Earth instead of simply looking for another planet to run to?
Needless to say, space exploration is expensive. A study conducted in 2003 aimed to investigate the public opinion on NASA’s activities. In 1997, participants on average assumed that the agency received 20% of government funding. After winning the race to put a human on the moon, NASA’s budget was cut significantly and has fluctuated between just 0.4 – 1% of total government expenditure since. Clearly this shows a lack of public awareness as to where the taxpayers money goes and, more importantly, how much of it.
Funding itself is quite a tricky topic. Researchers spend around 40-50% of their time writing grant proposals instead of working; naturally, this raises questions about what a better use of this time would be. The limited resources available and the pressure to publish (which is directly related to receiving funding) creates a perverse incentive. Best case scenario, scientists are forced to carry out studies that are likely to produce ‘statistically significant’ results rather than studies that matter. Worst case scenario, questionable research practices lead to a replication crisis. Recently in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Patrick Collison co-founded the program ‘Fast Grants’, which raised more than $50 million for several labs and research centres that were struggling to get government funding to find answers we were truly desperate to have. This is an excellent illustration of my point.
The money spent on space is still arguably spent on Earth, as the industry creates workplaces and as a by-product, develops technologies that we use in our everyday life. For instance, digital cameras were invented by NASA engineers, which paved the path to cell phone cameras, high quality videos and social media. If we talk about ‘pressing issues’, the water purification system was originally invented for the astronauts to reduce waste, however the commercial application is helping people around the globe where water resources are contaminated or simply very limited.
In the health sector, technologies such as implants, artificial limbs, and thermometers all come from space exploration activities. Robert A. Heinlein, an American science writer and aeronautical engineer, claimed in front of the Congress that four NASA spinoff technologies made his vascular bypass operation possible. Right now, there are around two thousand such spinoffs. It might not be obvious, but when we are talking about NASA sharing their findings with the world, they are following an established protocol Technology Transfer Program, meaning that the information is available for the public use so that people can adopt ideas and build on them.
The area that does seem quite extravagant is space tourism. The billionaire’s race to space is definitely ‘over-the-top’ money. Black carbon (i.e. soot) is exceptionally harmful for the ozone layer. The continuing growth of commercial flight to space may quickly undermine the progress made to restore it: a recent study showed that a rocket’s soot is 500 times more harmful for the atmosphere than all the other soot sources. This in turn will greatly contribute to the existing global warming trends.
According to the endogenous growth theory, economic development is mostly impacted by human capital (the value of characteristics possessed by an individual), knowledge, and the research which means that more funding for that should be available. Unless you plan on working for NASA, you’ll most likely never know what goes on behind closed doors. However, all the information so far points at the fact that space exploration is full of the myths that are yet to be debunked in regards to funding and the benefits of said research. Space exploration gives back massively to the community, however the science communication of it leaves much to be desired.