Recently, Chang’e 3 became the first spacecraft to land on the Moon since 1976. Last month, India launched its first mission to Mars, which is due to reach the Red Planet next September. India also plans to send astronauts to the moon in 2020, while China plans to do so in 2024.
Amidst this space race, the United States is noticeably absent. American astronauts have to use Russian spacecraft, which costs $8 million more per seat. NASA has not built a heavy-lift rocket since the Apollo program’s Saturn V. Their last attempt to do so, the Ares program, was cancelled since it was behind schedule and over budget.
The United States has chosen to revel in the past glories of the Apollo program rather than make new accomplishments. Putting a man on the moon was only supposed to be one step along the way to Mars and beyond. However, NASA decided to decommission the Saturn V rockets and stop going beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), reminiscent of how the Vikings abandoned North America or how the Ming Dynasty burned the treasure fleet after the death of Zheng He.
Some have argued that space exploration is an expensive, unnecessary venture and that limited federal funding would be better spent fighting poverty or curing diseases.
However, it’s necessary to put the cost of space exploration into perspective. NASA represents only 0.5 percent of the federal budget. At the height of the Apollo program, NASA was only four percent of the budget. The total money spent on NASA since its inception in 1958 is $850 billion. In comparison, the War on Drugs has cost $1 trillion in the last 40 years.
Furthermore, space exploration offers very important benefits.
99.8 percent of all species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees gives humanity a 50 percent chance of extinction in the next century. Nuclear war, asteroids, comets, genetically engineered “superbugs,” nanotechnology (the “grey goo” scenario), or runaway climate change could all wipe out human life.
In order to minimize these risks, humanity must spread out into the stars. As Stephen Hawking puts it, “The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.” While self-sufficient space colonies might not be a possibility for decades, we have to start somewhere. Space exploration can lay the groundwork for colonization now. Humanity has reached a delicate stage where it has the technology to breed its own salvation or annihilation. Space travel suggests the former is possible.
The issue of limited natural resources is also an important aspect of the debate over space exploration. There are only so many resources on Earth, and we are rapidly depleting them. Armin Reller, a materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany, estimates that in ten years, the world will run out of indium, a key component in touch screens. Tom Graedel of Yale University estimates that copper demand will outstrip supply by 2100. Copper is a key component of wires and computer chips.
These shortages could kill promising new technologies. For example, a new type of solar panel that is twice as efficient might not be built due to a lack of critical materials such as indium and gallium.
Resources in space are virtually limitless. Other planets and asteroids have never been mined before. One relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of 1.6 kilometers is estimated to contain $20 trillion dollars in metal. Deuterium, a possible fuel for nuclear fusion, is five times more abundant on Mars than on Earth.
There are also resources in space not easily found on Earth. For example, Helium-3 could be a fuel for nuclear fusion. While Helium-3 is very rare on Earth, it is far more abundant on the moon. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Fusion Technology Institute has already performed successful fusion experiments with Helium-3. Also, Helium-3 produces no radioactive byproducts, and a single space shuttle load could meet all of America’s energy needs for a year.
The most abundant energy resource in space is solar power. Solar power in space is unobstructed by clouds or the atmosphere, so it yields far greater outputs. Also, solar power in space can be illuminated 99 percent of the time, removing the complicated task of energy storage.
All in all, John S. Lewis of the University of Arizona estimates that all the resources in space could sustain a population of 1016 people.
Space exploration also creates spin-off technologies that help us here on Earth and stimulate the economy. Technologies created by NASA include memory foam, freeze-dried food, and artificial limbs. It is estimated that for every dollar spent on the Apollo program, the nation received nine dollars in return.
Finally, space exploration helps confirm that the US remains a global leader. In the 1960s, many thought that America was on the decline vis-à-vis the Soviet Union due to the Vietnam War, civil unrest and Soviet successes in space. The Moon landings did much to dismiss these doubts. American dominance is once again being called into question due to a stagnant economy, spiraling debt, two prolonged wars, a bickering Congress and the rise of China. If America sent an astronaut to Mars or built a base on the Moon, it would send a clear message that the US is still a dominant power.
The US must invest more in NASA. However, a budding private space industry has begun to prove itself increasingly capable. Government subsidies should be directed to companies like SpaceX. Another approach is to offer monetary prizes for useful new space technologies. A ten million dollar prize resulted in the first private reusable spacecraft in 2004. Prizes worth billions of dollars could be used to go to Mars or build heavy-lift rockets.
The great thing about prizes is that they create competition, which drives efficiency and innovation. Also, the fact that the prize money is a set amount avoids the possibility of going over-budget. Finally, the prize money does not have to be paid out unless actual results are achieved.
The teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s new film “Interstellar” asks if we’ve forgotten that we are pioneers. It’s time to reclaim America’s pioneer zeal the way Kennedy reclaimed it in the 1960s, showing the world that America can be great again.