What Are The Benefits Of Space Exploration?

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.

How Astronomy Benefits Society and Humankind

With an annual cost of $30.8 million, the Keck Observatory costs $53.7 thousand for a single night’s worth of operation. It will cost the James Webb Space Telescope approximately $8.8 billion to reach orbit. And the Space Launch System that will carry the Orion capsule is expected to cost $38 billion.

Why should we be spending such a vast amount of money on astronomy? How is it useful and beneficial to society?

Astronomers face this question on a daily basis. Recently a ream of European astronomers have provided tangible answers relating advancements in astronomy to advancements in industry, aerospace, energy, medicine, international collaboration, everyday life and humankind.

“I get this question quite often,” Dr. Marissa Rosenberg, lead author on the paper, told Universe Today. “One very personal reason for writing this article is that I wanted to share with my parents (both business people) why what I am doing is important and a necessary facet of society.”

Today, millions of people across the world are affected by advances in astronomy.

Industry

— Your iPhone’s camera is a charge-coupled device (CCD) — an instrument, which converts the movement of electrical charge into a digital value. Originally developed for astronomy, CCD’s are now used in most cameras, webcams and cell phones.

IPhone with a CCD
Every iPhone with has a built-in CCD

— The computer language Forth, originally developed for the 36-foot telescope on Kitt Peak is now used by FedEx to track packages.

— AT&T uses IRAF —  software written by the National Optical Astronomy   Observatory — to analyze computer systems.

— Kodak film, originally created by astronomers studying the sun, is used extensively by the medical and industrial industries, photographers and artists.

Aerospace

— Space-based telescopes have advanced defense satellites, which require identical technology and hardware.

— Global Positioning System satellites rely on astronomical objects — quasars and distant galaxies — to determine accurate positions.

Energy

— Technology gained from imaging X-rays is now used to monitor fusion — where two atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus — that may prove to be our answer for clean energy.

Medicine

Magnetic resonance imaging utilizes
Magnetic resonance imaging utilizes aperture synthesis – first an astronomical technique and now a medical technique.

Astronomy struggles to see increasingly faint objects;  Medicine struggles to see things obscured within the human body.

— Aperture synthesis — the process of combining data from multiple telescopes to produce a single image seemingly created from a telescope the size of the entire collection — first developed by a radio astronomer has been used for multiple medical imaging tools, including CAT scanners and MRIs.

— Building space-based telescopes requires an extremely clean environment in order to avoid dust particles from obscuring the mirrors or instruments. Similar methods and instruments are now used in hospitals and pharmaceutical labs.

International Collaboration

— Collaboration also inspires competition. The Space Race — a competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for supremacy in space exploration — landed Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

— Astronomy is a collaborative effort. In 1887 astronomers from around the world pooled their telescope images in order to create the first map of the entire sky. Today, astronomers travel around the globe to attend conferences, learn from one another, and utilize telescopes elsewhere.

Everyday Life

— Airports utilize advances in technology designed for astronomy. X-ray observatory technology is used in X-ray luggage belts. A gas chromatograph — an instrument designed for a Mars mission — is used to analyze luggage for explosives.

— Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” has sold over 10 million copies. Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” has been watched in over 60 countries.

Humankind

“Perhaps the most important reason to study astronomy is that astronomy seeks to satisfy our fundamental curiosity about the world we live in, and answer the ‘big’ questions,” Dr. Rosenberg told Universe Today. “How was the universe created? Where did we come from? Are there other intelligent life forms?”

Every advance in astronomy moves society closer to being able to answer these questions. With advanced technology — increasingly complex CCDs and larger ground- and space-based telescopes — we have peered into the distant, early universe, we have searched for habitable worlds, and we have come to the conclusion that we, ourselves, are stardust.

“Astronomy constantly reminds people of two seemingly contradictory things. First that the universe is infinite and we are of but the tiniest fraction of importance. And Second that life is rare and precious. A home as beautiful and unique as earth does not come often. We must protect it.”

An upcoming version of this paper will not only cover the tangible aspects of astronomy discussed here, but also the intangible aspects of astronomy.

The paper has been accepted has been published on the International Astronomical Union website and is available for download here.