Tomorrow, February 13th, US President Obama is scheduled to make an announcement surrounding budget cuts that will most likely result in NASA’s withdrawal from a human flight to Mars. Furthermore, it is expected that the projected budget cuts will result in a significant reduction in funding for future robotic missions.
The funding for space exploration has always been controversial. Why reach to the stars when we have our own issues here on Earth? And certainly the United States must ask difficult questions of priority in the post economic collapse (and in the precursor to an election.) Working primarily in the humanitarian sector myself, I get similar questions. Why help individuals in the developing world when we have issues here at home in Canada? Again a valid question. But I believe that both questions arise from a false dichotomy stemming from a presupposition that one must happen in lieu of the other. I completely believe that we can assist developing nations in a sustainable way while simultaneously serving our own. In fact, I’d argue that research and development in one field buttresses the other just as I believe that exploration of space and breaking ground on a new world can assist the one which we left to journey the solar system. Medical technologies, as an example, have been furthered by space sciences. Our weather prediction, storm warning and emergency response systems are made more accurate by satellite tracking and GPS technology. Fire proofing materials designed for the space shuttle have found themselves in use here on the Earth. As a development practitioner, if there was one human endeavour that would help bring us a quantum leap forward in creating more efficient housing, generating clean energy, or enhancing our understanding of botany and food production, it would be trying to establish a colony on a barren planet such as Mars.
In another post I read recently on the Mars Society Blog, a letter is posted by Dr. Ernest Stuhlinger, Associate Director for Science at the Marshall Space Flight Center, written in 1970 to a nun running an orphanage in Africa. Having worked in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda while being awed by space sciences, this letter really spoke to me as I have been often asked a similar question as the Nun poses to Stuhlinger. Why spend money on Space instead of feeding hungry children? Below is a excerpt from the letter:
“Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth. It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life, and of man.”
Do I believe our planet could be spending its resources more wisely to eradicate poverty, increase access to education, reduce child mortality or any other of the Millennium Development Goals? Absolutely. Do I believe that reducing expenditure in space exploration is the source of that funding? No. As for the United States, the nation will be responsible for determining its own budget, but I am disheartened that of all the US’s enormous expenditures in military operations around the world, that the cuts will be coming from NASA, a mere fraction of the US’s budget.
Many of the world’s early explorers unfortunately came in the name of might and force. Certainly I have seen the effects of these explorers in my own country of Canada and in the nations I served in post-colonial Africa. Our extraterrestrial journeys since have created harmony between nations and peoples. The whole world looked up when Armstrong landed on the moon. The Americans and Russians shook hands in orbit even as the cold war loomed on the Earth below. And now that same Russian Soyuz project is taking our own astronauts, Canadians Included, into space. If our world doesn’t take the next step outward, I fear our civilization will stagnate. What does it mean for humanity when we decide that it is too expensive, too costly, to explore?