Next Stop, Everywhere

[This was a paper I wrote for my Eng. 101 class Dec. 2013. We were asked to write a research/argument paper. I chose space exploration.]

“Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen.” These words were relayed to the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 as they sat on the launchpad in Cape Canaveral, readying for the Moonlaunch. Tension between the USA and the USSR was high, and many people were counting on Apollo 11 succeeding, perhaps as a show of power to the Soviets. The whole idea was crazy and incredibly risky, as everyone knew; the first Apollo mission caught fire and killed all three of the astronauts on board. Despite this setback, the project was still funded, and there the Saturn V rocket sat, ready for liftoff and raring to go. Something pushed these two great nations to race upwards: what was it? What is so fascinating and intriguing about the star-strewn blackness above that draws the eye thoroughly enough that life, limb, and loads of money are risked to get there?

Whatever those crazy and risky reasons, people seem to be less aware of them today. NASA used to have a large budget, especially at the height of the Space Age, but that has been changing over the years. However, the space program should continue to be funded because it can further knowledge of many subjects—not just space-related—improve quality of life through application of this knowledge, give the nations somewhere to focus their energy, and bring hope for the future. Space travel is expensive, of course, so a way to lessen the burden on the government could be to make partnerships with private space programs, which could then benefit from NASA’s experience, to use robots and probes because then there would be more room to add scientific equipment and it would be safer.

Space exploration can further humanity’s knowledge of science and technology by showing what is beyond the atmosphere, as well as calling for technological innovation. Since the Earth’s atmosphere blocks almost every wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum except visible light and radio waves, pre-Space Age knowledge of what was beyond the atmosphere was limited. The solar wind was only a theory, the Red Spot was thought to be caused by a floating island in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and no one knew how long Venus’s day was. What the Earth looked like, exactly, was also unknown. The cultures of the world saw themselves as separate, invisible lines of demarcation even running through oceans and over mountains. With satellites, space stations, and manned space shuttles, knowledge expanded. The solar wind’s effects were seen. The Red Spot was observed as a Jovian storm system. Mariner 2 found out the length of the morning star’s rotation. Satellite images of the Earth abound, and as the space shuttles zoomed out on Planet Earth, boundaries fell away and revealed to those who saw it what those world cultures really were as a whole: mankind. Now orbiting satellites can see millions and billions of years into deep space using many wavelengths on the EM spectrum, and their counterparts that are turned Earthwards can study weather patterns, track animal and bird migrations, and update phones. Oceanographers admit that more is known about the surface of the moon than about the bottom of the seas, but satellites help with this, too; mountains and places of higher elevation exert a stronger gravitational pull on the surface of the ocean, lowering it by up to a few meters. The satellite Skylab was able to use this difference to make a map of the ocean floor from orbit. In addition, the space program calls for new technology that can be applied in other areas, like cordless machinery, CAT scans, and UV sunglasses.

The space program can improve quality of life, and not just in obvious ways; one way this can happen is through what astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson calls a cross-pollination of fields. For example, while the Hubble Space Telescope is renowned for its beautiful, clear-cut images, this was not always the case. When Hubble was first launched, it had a design flaw that left all the photos it took blurry. This was a blow to the scientific community, but they kept on programming the telescope to take pictures, hoping to get something while they worked on fixing the problem. For three years, computer algorithms were written to identify what was in the images. These programs were later applied in the medical field, to help doctors better find cancerous growths in mammograms. Tyson, director at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, says this cross-pollination happens all the time, and especially in space exploration, since it calls on so many different disciplines. This is important because it shows that the space program does not just benefit scientists.

The space program has also increased the connectivity of the human race. It was in 1959 that a satellite first transferred a message from space. Satellites are now used for Global Positioning Systems (GPS), predicting the weather, and measuring climate change. Though two hundred years ago it would have sounded ridiculous that someone in the US could whisper and a person in China would hear, communications like that happen all the time. Most telephones do not use satellites anymore, but radios do for long-distance relays.

Many people fear that the resources of Earth are being used up too fast. This is a tough subject that cannot be adequately covered here, but as the human race grows and expands it will need more resources; is there a way to get these resources from space? There are millions–more–of asteroids and comets out there. These bodies are made of much the same material as the Earth. Many asteroids are made of nickel, which is not rare on Earth, but they also contain lots of gold and platinum; platinum is one of the most rare and expensive metals. In an interview with The Engineer, a magazine in the United Kingdom, Ian Crawford–professor of planetary science and astrobiology at the University of London–said he estimates that each small metallic asteroid could be worth about $20 billion dollars. He also talked about asteroids that contain oxygen, hydrogen, and water, saying they could be extremely useful for astronauts in space. The mining potential of asteroids is backed by several billionaires, including the movie director James Cameron and Google investors Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. These people hope to have potential mining sites listed within the next couple decades (Folger).

The space program is helpful because it can provide an outlet for energy. For example, when the USSR and the USA became rivals after World War II, the fear of a major conflict between them was real and valid. Instead, the animosity between these two countries was channeled into the Space Race: the goal of getting men on the Moon. The Space Race gave the Americans and Soviets somewhere to focus their energy, and since humans love a good competition, it became huge. And now, the International Space Station speaks of a partnership between the nations, with astronauts from the US, Russia, Japan, and the European Union. When the US grounded their own space fleet for a time in the early twenty-first century, they hitched rides with . . . the Russians. They that were once America’s enemies are now their partners in science. Tyson visited Russia a few years ago and mentioned that he felt a camaraderie with the Russians, since they have also spent so much time and effort in going towards that final frontier. While of course science cannot drop all barriers, perhaps solving the complexities of orbital mechanics leave little room for much else.

The space program provides hope for the future. There was a huge boom of scientists in the 20th century, who worked during the Space Race. If a goal was setting of reaching, say, Mars, who knows the effect it would have on the children of today? Space is exciting and mysterious, and the thought of it has the power to inspire young people into learning more, using their talents to bring space closer. It is so ridiculous to think that the space program could garner more scientists from the next generation, and not even astronauts or astrophysicists and cosmologists? Overpopulation is a big concern for the future; this would be many, many years in the future, but many scientists and corporations have big dreams about solving overpopulation by colonizing another planet, or building huge self-sustaining ships. This would be expensive and it would take a lot of time, but it is certainly feasible. Energy is also a big concern at the moment, and that is also something scientists think the space program can help with. It is believed that 95% of the universe is dark matter and dark energy, though at this time no one is exactly sure what those two things are. In an article in the Air & Space Magazine, Michael Griffin says: “Is it even conceivable that one day we won’t learn to harness them? As cavemen learned to harness fire, as people two centuries ago learned to harness electricity, we will learn to harness these new things. […] What is the value of knowledge like that? I cannot begin to guess.” Dark matter supposedly fills the entire universe. Though more research is needed, the idea that it might be able to solve energy problems is enticing.

It has been argued that there are so many problems here on Earth—energy crises, global warming, economic woes—that spending money to go to space is simply a waste. It is true that problems on Earth must be dealt with, but that does not mean that the space program has to be abandoned, because there are problems that come from outer space as well. Asteroids, solar flares, and gamma rays are a few problems that should not be ignored. In his book Death From the Skies! astronomer Philip Plait, who runs the popular blog Bad Astronomy, lists a few of the many ways space can wipe out life on Earth. He cites, among others, the Tunguska event, miniature black holes, and the public favorite, alien invasion. Though the human race is in very little danger of being sucked up by a black hole accidentally created by CERN, scientists do not really know how many of these might be lurking out in space. It would be hard to see a black hole coming, as they have certainly earned their name. Another problem is meteorites; the very first spacecraft launched by the US, Explorer 1, carried a device for sensing micrometeorite hits. When combined with later data, scientists calculated that two million pounds of cosmic dust hit the Earth every day. And it is not always just dust; last year a meteorite streaked over and hit Russia. The famous Tunguska meteorite fell into Siberia in 1908, exploding before it met the ground. If that had happened over a city, like Moscow, thousands would have died. Meanwhile, the Tunguska meteorite was small compared to the one that scientists think hit the Yucatán peninsula a few million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. The threat from space is very real, and it would be ridiculous to ignore it just because it costs a lot of money. Yes, energy is needed and the economy is bad, but this issue is just as real and should also be allowed time and effort.

Another opposition to space exploration is the thought of what might be done if a habitable, Earth-like planet is ever found. People protest that Earth has already been mistreated; why condemn another planet to the same fate? Things that can be helped, like global warming, should be helped, but what about problems like overpopulation? As mentioned earlier, it might be possible one day to move on to another planet if this one becomes too depleted. Some people say that humans will alway deplete every planet they go to, like parasites. It is definitely true that Earth could be better taken-care-of (and that is a whole different topic for a paper right there), but humans cannot help using resources if they want to survive. Environmentally-friendly living is another very important topic that should be given time and effort, but these two topics need not cancel each other out; they are not mutually exclusive.

Many people wonder if the risks of space travel outweigh the benefits. Space is dangerous, and it is difficult to get there (and, as everyone learned with the Columbia disaster, it is hard to get back from space too). In an interview with National Geographic, Freeman Dyson, who worked for Project Orion (a project from the ‘50s that planned to go to Mars and Saturn using a spaceship that fired nuclear bombs out the back), states: “[Project Orion] would have been enormously risky. We were prepared for that. The mood then was totally different. The idea of a risk-free adventure just didn’t make sense.” In a speech given at Rice University in 1962, President John F. Kennedy said: “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? […] We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!” Back then, there was an especial realization that without risk and sacrifice, space would never be reached. This endeavor should never be brought to the point of recklessness, but risks have to be taken, as in every venture.

Private space agencies do not rely on the government for their budget, and they use less money, mainly because they build re-usable machines rather than one-timers. SpaceX, a company that designs, manufactures, and launches spacecraft, has already docked with the ISS. NASA could make a partnership with private agencies, which it might not cost as much as most people think. According to Tyson, less than a penny of each American tax dollar goes to NASA, despite the $40 million plus price tag on each mission—and those are the smaller spacecrafts. Private space flights cost even less: Virgin Galactic quotes a payload ticket of $200,000, while their rival, XCOR, says ‘just’ $100,000. SpaceX offers space launchers for half of what NASA would have to pay to make one. Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, has said that space exploration needs to be privatized, after he watched so much “budget wrangling” in Congress. In 2013, NASA announced an effort to form a collaboration with private space industries. Phil McAlister, the director for Commercial Spaceflight Development, said: “For new entrepreneurial efforts in space, NASA’s archive of lessons learned, technical expertise and spaceflight data is an invaluable national resource and engine for new economic growth.”

A way to potentially lessen costs and loss of life is to use machines in space travel. Robots and rovers have already visited Mars and many other places that humans can only dream of setting foot on. The upside to robots is that they do not need to eat or sleep, and advancements in robotics would also help with the cross-pollination that was mentioned earlier, as they could be employed in many different settings. The downside is, of course, that a robot cannot think like a human, and it would be difficult to repair and redirect if anything went wrong. Of course, if a robot ‘dies’ it is not much of a tragedy, which is good: the first five launches to Mars failed to do anything at all, and were destroyed in some manner or another. Any humans on board would have been killed. More of the Mars robots have been failures than successes, though the thumbs-ups have been getting more frequent over the years. This suggests that the best course of action is to send robots and probes first, watched by men on Earth, then, after a thorough testing of the waters, humans step in to do what they do best: explore, invent, and generally be human.

Antoine Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas.” There is so much to long for in the sea of outer space. The unknown is scary, but also incredibly enticing. Is this, then, what drives humanity to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively? It is difficult, but maybe there are ways to reach space-bound goals. Space travel costs a lot, but that can be helped if NASA creates a partnership with private agencies, adding their expertise to the mix; this has already been shown to be helpful, and risks to human life can be lowered if robots are used. There have been many benefits from the space program and space travel, benefits that affect normal people in their normal lives. When Sputnik I was launched in 1957, it set a new standard. It proved once and for all that it was possible to get an object into low-Earth orbit, and set the stage for everything that would come after. The space program has benefited humanity with the science and technology it provides, with the unexpected applications of its creations, and with the way it can reconcile differences by focusing on a common goal. The space program is not the be all and end all to every problem, but it is a way to keep stagnation at a minimum. And maybe, if all goes well, those discoveries will put a stopper on the next killer comet that heads this direction.


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