Space Exploration: At What Cost?
Is it right to spend money on space exploration when people on our own planet are in dire need of aid?
It's been a humbling few weeks for many of us. Devastating scenes in Japan from the earthquake, tsunami and now the nuclear crisis serve as a reminder how lucky many of us are.
For me, this was followed by watching Comic Relief charity event in the UK on March 18 and seeing the poverty in Uganda on the TV — it was nothing short of shocking. In the same period, I was closely following NASA's MESSENGER space probe as it dropped into orbit around Mercury, the nearest planet to the sun.
I found myself wondering if it's right that we are spending all this money on space exploration when people on our own planet are suffering so horribly, either at the hands of Mother Nature or poor governments.
Mission to Mercury
Mercury itself has actually had quite a lot of press of late, as the last few weeks have been a great opportunity to try and observe this tiny elusive planet. When inner planets (Mercury and Venus) orbit around the sun and reach the extremes of their orbit as viewed from Earth, they are at their easiest to spot.
For Mercury, it's been on the eastern side of the sun so is said to be at "greatest eastern elongation," a mouthful that means it's worth trying to spot it low in the western sky after sunset.
It's been great to see the nearest planet to the sun, up close, and amazing to know that we've sent a tiny space probe there to study it. But for me, even more spectacular was watching Discovery dock with the International Space Station a few weeks ago.
That question about funding still nags at me though.
The MESSENGER mission cost $280 million (which, in reality, isn't a vast amount for a space mission). The launch of a space shuttle costs $450 million and there have been about 130 of them. It cost $1.7 billion to build just one of the five-strong fleet.
Finally, the International Space Station has, over the years of its existence, cost an estimated $142 billion and that's not including the plethora of smaller space missions, other space agencies and other expenses involved in space exploration.
As you can see, these are big numbers. Yet there's an urgent need for funding to save lives down here on Earth, too.
Although space exploration certainly isn't over-funded, should we keep throwing money into space exploration when there are so many examples of human suffering?
More Money, Less Suffering?
A great effort this year saw the Comic Relief campaign raise £70 million ($114 million). But this is just one example; there have been countless great fund-raising efforts internationally over the years. Public fund-raising brings in money for these great causes, yet governments give billions in foreign aid too. The UK for example, gives around $11 billion each year in foreign aid.
So, my mind drifts back to last year's Comic Relief show when I was witnessing many of the same scenes I saw this year and another question pops into my mind: "why isn't any of this getting better?" It seems that money isn't the answer, or perhaps the money isn't getting spent in the right places (is the problem too big to be solved with the money being raised?). Either way, I don't think pouring more and more money into these problems will magically make them go away.
Don't get me wrong, if I thought for one second that stopping space exploration would mean these problems would be solved, then I would be one of the first calling for missions to be scrapped.
I have very special and fond memories of space exploration; watching the images come back of Halley's Comet from Giotto, seeing the surface of Titan (Saturn's moon) from the Huygens lander and incredible footage of the surface of Mars from Pathfinder.
Great memories are one thing, but many people just see space exploration as "a bit of fun" and something that's "nice to do" — in light of recent science budget cuts and canceled missions, space exploration is often one of the first government expenditures to be targeted — but I'd argue space exploration is critical to our future.
We already see tangible benefits for developing space technology, ultimately resolving issues down here on Earth and enriching all our lives. Water purification techniques that were developed for space exploration are being used in third-world countries, ultimately preventing disease and saving lives.
There are greater yields of crops thanks to space-driven technology, not to mention advances in medicine from treatments for brain cancer to more accurate thermometers.
The environmental benefits are wide-ranging, as satellites in orbit provide valuable data about how our atmosphere is evolving. Data from studies of other planetary atmospheres in the solar system help us to understand ours.
To be honest, a huge number of space-motivated technologies – too many to list — have changed the shape of society. Out of interest, NASA maintains a "spinoff" online database detailing how NASA's space endeavors have real-world benefits.
I'll let you draw your own conclusion on this emotive topic, but for me I shall continue to enjoy and support man's exploration of the Universe knowing that money alone can't simply get rid of world suffering.
I will sit back and enjoy the images from MESSENGER, knowing that space endeavors not only advance mankind's understanding of the Universe, but also drive the technologies that enrich our planet. I'll still donate money to help fellow man, knowing... hoping, that one day those who make the final decision on how it is spent will send it in the right direction.