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What Are The Benefits Of Space Exploration?

Eugene Cernan on the lunar surface, December 13, 1972. Credit: NASA.

Eugene Cernan on the lunar surface, December 13, 1972. Credit: NASA.

Why explore space? It’s an expensive arena to play in, between the fuel costs and the technological challenge of operating in a hostile environment. For humans, a small mistake can quickly become fatal — something that we have seen several times in space history. And for NASA’s budget, there are projects that come in late and over budget, drawing the ire of Congress and the public.

These are some of the drawbacks. But for the rest of this article, we will focus on some of the benefits of going where few humans have gone before.

Spinoffs

Perhaps the most direct benefit comes from technologies used on Earth that were first pioneered in space exploration. This is something that all agencies talk about, but we’ll focus on the NASA Spinoff program as an example. (NASA will be used as the prime example for most of this article, but many of these cited benefits are also quoted by other space agencies.)

The program arose from NASA’s desire to showcase spinoffs at congressional budget hearings, according to its website. This began with a “Technology Utilization Program Report” in 1973, which began as a black-and-white circular and progressed to color in 1976 following public interest. Since that year, NASA has published more than 1,800 reports on spinoffs.

The agency has several goals in doing this. “Dispelling the myth of wasted taxpayer dollars” is one NASA cites, along with encouraging the public to follow space exploration and showing how American ingenuity can work in space.

There are many commercialized advances the program says it contributed to, including “memory foam” (first used for airline crash protection), magnetic resonance imaging and smoke detection. In many cases, NASA did not invent the technology itself, but just pushed it along, the agency says.

An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA

An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA

But as counterpoint to NASA’s arguments, some critics argue the technology would have been developed anyway without space exploration, or that the money spent on exploration itself does not justify the spinoff.

Job creation

Another popularly cited benefit of space exploration is “job creation”, or the fact that a space agency and its network of contractors, universities and other entities help people stay employed. From time to time, NASA puts out figures concerning how many associated jobs a particular project generates, or the economic impact.

Here’s an example: in 2012, NASA administrator Charles Bolden published a blog post about the Curiosity Mars rover landing, which was picked up by the White House website. “It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states,” he wrote.

Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana”  rock target  on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615).  Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana” rock target on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615). Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

But the benefit can cut in a negative way, too. NASA’s budget is allocated by Congress, which means that the amount of money it has available for employment fluctuates. There are also some programs that are highly dependent on grants, which can make stable jobs challenging in those fields. Finally, as the priorities of Congress/NASA change, jobs can evaporate with it. One example was the space shuttle’s retirement, which prompted a job loss so massive that NASA had a “transition strategy” for its employees and contractors.

It’s also unclear what constitutes a “job” under NASA parlance. Some universities have researchers working on multiple projects — NASA-related or not. Employment can also be full-time, part-time or occasional. So while “job creation” is cited as a benefit, more details about those jobs are needed to make an informed decision about how much good it does.

Education

Teaching has a high priority for NASA, so much so that it has flown astronaut educators in space. (The first one, Christa McAuliffe, died aboard the space shuttle Challenger during launch in 1986. Her backup, Barbara Morgan, was selected as an educator/mission specialist in 1998 and flew aboard STS-118 in 2007.) And to this day, astronauts regularly do in-flight conferences with students from space, ostensibly to inspire them to pursue careers in the field.

Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space.  Credit: "The Lost Lessons"

Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space. Credit: “The Lost Lessons”

NASA’s education office has three goals: making the workforce stronger, encouraging students to pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and “engaging Americans in NASA’s mission.” Other space agencies also have education components to assist with requirements in their own countries. It’s also fair to say the public affairs office for NASA and other agencies play roles in education, although they also talk about topics such as missions in progress.

But it’s hard to figure out how well the education efforts translate into inspiring students, according to a National Research Council report on NASA’s primary and secondary education program in 2008. Among other criticisms, the program was cited as unstable (as it needs to change with political priorities) and there was little “rigorous evaluation” of its effectiveness. But NASA’s emphasis on science and discovery was also praised.

Anecdotally, however, many astronauts and people within NASA have spoken about being inspired by watching missions such as Apollo take place. And the same is true of people who are peripherally involved in the field, too. (A personal example: this author first became interested in space in the mid-1990s through the movie Apollo 13, which led to her watching the space shuttle program more closely.)

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

Intangible benefits

Added to this host of business-like benefits, of course, are the intangibles. What sort of value can you place on better understanding the universe? Think of finding methane on Mars, or discovering an exoplanet, or constructing the International Space Station to do long-term exploration studies. Each has a cost associated with it, but with each also comes a smidgeon of knowledge we can add to the encyclopedia of the human race.

Space can also inspire art, which is something seen heavily in 2014 following the arrival of the European Space Agency Rosetta mission at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It inspired songs, short videos and many other works of art. NASA’s missions, particularly those early space explorers of the 1950s and 1960s, inspired creations from people as famous as Norman Rockwell.

There also are benefits that maybe we cannot anticipate ahead of time. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a network that advocates looking for life around the universe, likely because communicating with beings outside of Earth could bring us some benefit. And perhaps there is another space-related discovery just around the corner that will change our lives drastically.

For more information, here is a Universe Today article about how we really watched television from the moon. We also collected some spin-offs from the Hubble Space Telescope. You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 144 Space Elevators.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

{ 8 comments… add one }

  • Steven Georges January 26, 2015, 12:48 PM

    Nice article, and thanks for the links.
    A little off topic, I love the lead photo on top but you might want to give Harrison Schmitt photo credit for taking it.

    • Elizabeth Howell January 26, 2015, 2:42 PM

      Ha, good point. We all “know” it’s Schmitt as he was the only other one there and able to take the picture. I think you can even see him in the visor! But the official credit on NASA’s website is it’s a NASA photo, so that’s the style we stuck with. (It’s generally best practice to use the same credit that the organization does.)

      • Steven Georges January 29, 2015, 2:42 AM

        Sorry, speaking as a photographer, I couldn’t disagree more with you. Saying what Harrison Schmitt did isn’t important enough to give him credit is an insult to him and what he accomplished. And just because some clerk at NASA was lazy doesn’t mean you should be too. Unlike him, your a journalist and should know better.
        I don’t mean to come off so accusatory, I like your reporting, but his work is as important as yours on this story. That’s why you lead with it.
        StevenGeorges.com

  • Art14 January 26, 2015, 3:15 PM

    How about survival of the human race – such as finding dangerous asteroids, finding and using space based resources, figuring out how and where to build, protect and supply space colonies. I believe our long term survival depends on us moving off this planet. We can’t do it unless we explore the environment we are potentially moving into.

  • TedH January 26, 2015, 4:28 PM

    “What is the benefit of…” Sorry, but that’s a “stupid” question. What is the benefit of a… car? Now imagine one would have asked this 200 years ago! The benefit of a … computer – asked in the late 1950 (John Doe wouldn’t understand what you were asking). The benefit of having… sonar (beside the chance of catching enemy subs)? We never would have accepted Alfred Wegeners idea of plate tectonics (moving continents – ridiculous!!!)

    • Jeffrey Boerst January 28, 2015, 2:34 AM

      Stupid question indeed, but none-the-less because so. many. people. ask it and accompanying ones such as, “Why spend millions of dollars to go to Mars and look at rocks instead of spending it to help poor people eat here on Earth?”, is why articles like this need to be published. My best answer to those is, “One could say there are more pressing issues here at home all throughout history; just ask the same about the starving folks in Spain back in the late 1400’s…..” Give a billion dollars to a nation’s poor and they’ll eat for a lifetime. Spend it to give them more cultivatable land elsewhere and they’ll eat for generations.

      • TedH January 28, 2015, 1:57 PM

        You’re right, Jeff. I have given this answer mostly because I’m kinda “fed up” with this question. It always comes up / asked by “ignorant” people who normally don’t give a damn about what’s going on around them… only if it takes some money away from them.

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