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Space exploration: Colossal waste of money or one giant leap for mankind?

Following Elon Musk’s brilliant, yet also brilliantly expensive Falcon Heavy launch, there was again social media outrage decrying it as a huge waste of resources that could have been better used on Earth. It’s something I’ve heard a lot here and there from both liberals and conservatives: “Why should we invest so much in something that barely affects us?”

I’m not that surprised when this question comes from supporters of the current administration. Our supremely well-qualified EPA Chief, Scott Pruitt, just recently stated, “We know that humans have most flourished during time of warming trends. I think there’s [sic] assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.” Trump has also tried to hide and censor scientific facts that go against his platform, even cutting funding for many major science agencies.

This makes it even more strange that some liberals are against the scientific progress that space exploration brings.

The common “bleeding-heart liberal” argument is often that “since money isn’t being spent on poor people or starving children in Africa, it’s a waste.” For example, Nathan Robinson describes these launches as “indefensible wastes of money” in his article that sums up much of this childish reasoning. Robinson tries to casually equate Musk’s position about space exploration with the idea that “anyone who mentions the colossal waste the project involves, or the various social uses to which these resources could be put, [should] be dismissed as a killjoy.”

He’s exactly right. These people are indeed killjoys, and should be educated on the benefits that research can bring. In addition to being applied to Elon Musk and other rich entrepreneurs, this argument is also used for reasons that we should defund NASA.

What Robinson fails to address is the fact that the research and development that is needed to undertake such a massive project directly benefits us back on Earth. This is something I believe cannot be overstated enough: Even though we might just see something like a rocket launch as “cool” or an “oh wow” moment, in reality so much preparation and research goes into it that will inherently flow back and benefit us. Imagine a life without prosthetic limbs, heart pumps, solar power, advance firefighter gear and water purification. NASA has played a large part in the research and development of all of these items.

Innovations that are developed through NASA’s research are known as spin-offs, and often include medical and safety breakthroughs. Robinson states, “perhaps we could make it so that a child no longer dies of malaria every two minutes,” but space exploration could actually be the solution to this disease or similar ones through spin-offs. The technology that results from these large scale missions could solve many problems back on Earth.

From an economic standpoint, space exploration in general has so many benefits. Starting off, NASA doesn’t occupy a large portion of the federal budget at all, clocking in at a 0.4% of the 2018 budget. Even then, it’s not like the money that goes into NASA is being wasted. Each dollar that goes into NASA adds $7-14 to the economy. It’s a good investment to invest in space: we get great technology that we can use here on Earth as well as a boost to industry.

Viewpoints like Robinson’s disparaging Musk for using his own money on his own project instead of sending it off to another cause are reasons that wealth redistribution (which is needed in society) is often looked down upon within the U.S. The idea that rich people are both the sole problem and sole solution for society doesn’t really make sense, and especially not for scientists like Musk who are trying to develop ways to advance society. At the same time we as a society disparage wealthy people for working hard and having money, we expect them to give up that money and magically solve all of the world’s problems.

Even when Musk is involved with such a scientific breakthrough that will no doubt benefit the majority of members of society, much of it from his personal investment, he is still insulted. Even when the government is able to make an amazing return on its investment from NASA and other space programs that can be used to help civilians, people like Robinson will no doubt still bash on the agency. If anything, we need to invest in space technology: instead of ridiculing Elon Musk for shooting a car into space, we should relish the technology and R&D that went into it.

 

Contact Tiger Sun at tgsun@stanford.edu

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