The Value of Space Exploration
A Bold Vision
In the wake of the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik, the battle field of the Cold War expanded into the Cosmos. Kennedy's bold assertion in his address to congress in 1961 that we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade sent the scientific, technological, and engineering communities scrambling to fulfill this vision. In many ways, it was assumed, that by winning the space race we would be tacitly asserting the superiority of Capitalism over Communism. Following the fulfillment of Kennedy's promise on July 20th 1969 space exploration has grudgingly continued, despite decreased popular sentiment and an ever dwindling budget, into the new millennium. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the absence of this highly politicized motive for space exploration can we garner, upon retrospective reflection, other practical and economic evidence that supports the contention that space exploration is a good societal investments that pays multi-faceted dividends?
Inspiration and Education
The launching of Sputnik and the declaration by Kennedy launched the collective dreaming of a generation. The resulting prolific investment in education was a direct result of a need for scientifically innovative students to be natured within the U.S. borders and amongst the U.S. populace. In 1958 Congress approved a Billion dollars to be allocated to the National Defense of Education Act. Public schools also initiated an increased effort to identify gifted students for placement in AP classes. Lyndon Johnson, then a Senator, held hearings on the need for increased public school construction and maintenance. During the summer of 1958 schools began receiving matching federal funds for Math, Science, and Language education.
Sputnik also changed what Americans bought their children to play with. Junior Chemistry lab's, Anatomical Models, telescopes, and other educational toys saw a boon in sales in the late 1950's.
A Congressional commitment toward education was engendered by Kennedy's 1961 speech. In 1964 President Johnson signed into law The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Which persists to this day in the, "No Child left Behind," act and subsequent educational reforms.
What Do You Think?
Should We Increase NASA's Budget?
Innovation and Spin-Off Technologies
The Technology Utilization Program initiated by NASA in 1962 was aimed at the dissemination of technology developed by logistical imperatives for manned and unmanned space exploration in the creation of new private commercial products. NASA began issuing reports on the success of this program in 1973 during congressional budget hearings. These reports resulted in a book, first published in 1976, that was forwarded to economist, academics, private executives, and technology professionals and has outlined since this first year of annual publication over 1500 NASA technologies that have spurred economic growth, created jobs, and advanced commonly used technologies.
The 5 million dollar annual budget allocated to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, NASA's precursor, was inflated to 5 Billion dollars in 1959 by Eisenhower. Much of these funds went to the private development of the technology that would make air travel safe and affordable. Boeing was one of the many NASA private contractors that continue to stimulate the economy.
The necessity of locating suitable lunar landing sites birthed CAT scan and MRI technology that have become indispensable tools in medical diagnostics. Weightlessness conditions resulted in athletic and rehabilitative therapeutic devises. The need to preserve food in space led to the innovation of freeze-drying. And the materials required to withstand the extreme temperatures of space are now used by radioactive techs, racecar drivers, firemen, and dock workers. This list is very short and very superficial, it is a mere concavity in the ocean of technological advancements that have their root in NASA endeavors.
The two advancements that we most benefit from today are the micro-circuitry and other computer innovations that we use in our cars, timepieces, cell phones, and PCs (all based on technologies developed in the 1960's) and the use we make of the more than 1,000 satellites orbiting the Earth that allow for GPS, satellite radio, television, and telephones. Pan-global communication through whatever medium is only possible through the satellite relays of radio signals.
A personal favorite NASA accomplishment is the Hubble telescope. The genius of a telescope in orbit is that the images it records are not obfuscated by the Earth's atmosphere. Aside from the advances in digital photography precipitated by this project, the images it sends back are a constant source for further Cosmological and Astronomical research and understanding. If you have never viewed these picture then you are truly missing out on the most breath-taking, awe-inspiring images ever captured by human devised means.
The Future of Technology
Moore's law postulates that technology now doubles every two years. This phenomena is born out of the necessity engendered in real world problem solving. It is only by remaining on the frontier of human interaction with the unknown that such necessity presents itself. Had the Space Race not been a part of our past into which we heavily invested then our current technological understanding and the availability of the pragmatic technological devices it spawned would be gravely deficit by comparison.
The 21st century in the U.S. has been defined it severe policy blunders that have put us in the most dire Economic circumstances we have seen in 80 years. At a time when interest in investing in our future Academics and in space exploration is at an all time low, perhaps we can take a page from very recent history and see the economic and logistic benefits reaped from sowing the seeds of curiosity and exploration.