US astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon's surface. Photo: NASA/AFP
US astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon's surface. Photo: NASA/AFP

As a staunch space-program advocate and aeronautics-technology buff, whose eyes filled with tears of pride watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and whose frustration that the US has not ventured out of near-Earth orbit for 47 years, when President Donald Trump’s budget request for NASA for fiscal 2020 prioritized the development of a sustainable human presence on the moon, it hit close to home.

Space exploration has exploded. Globally, there is a broad audience that has a renewed interest in space, and it is igniting the imagination of a new generation. This interdisciplinary and intergenerational renaissance is the ultimate entrepreneurial dream. And when it comes to developing for space, we’re starting fresh – but that doesn’t make the task as easy as it sounds. We build from what we know.

As a docent at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC, I often get asked the questions: Why should we spend money on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration where there are so many problems here on Earth? Are we going as fast and as far as our vision takes us? Will we have a shot of getting the gender balance right when we become an interplanetary species? What if aliens dropped into low-Earth orbit? Why are we going to space?

In response to the curious visitors’ quest for answers, I decided to search for a rationale for human space exploration and compile a list of my top reasons for believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor. We’ve been exploring space for nearly five decades and it’s time we had a discussion about why we are doing it and how we will shape it.

So why bother exploring space? How on earth can you convince people why the US needs a space program? It’s almost impossible. The best you can do is to take them on a journey through history and carefully point out each exploratory endeavor that humankind has attempted. Explain how these explorations have shaped the society that we live in now and explain how every new space discovery has led to great cultures and inventions.

There are myriad reasons to explore space, which most Americans have undoubtedly heard, but it would take too long to go through all of them, so here are 12 key reasons space exploration is vital to humanity.

1. Curiosity. Mankind has demonstrated time and again an insatiable curiosity and the need to satisfy that curiosity. Curiosity is vital to the human spirit, and accepting the challenge of going deeper into space will invite the citizens of the world today and the generations of tomorrow to join NASA on this exciting journey. Without this thirst, our ancestors would never have left Africa, let alone set foot on the moon.

2. Inspiration. Space missions and their results capture the human imagination more vividly than any other branch of the physical sciences. They inspire students to follow careers in science and engineering, and engender an interest in science in the general public. The Apollo missions inspired millions to pursue careers in mathematics and science. As society becomes more dependent on technology, having a tech-literate society is no longer a luxury. Few programs inspire young people to pursue the math and sciences than real-life space explorers.

3. Technology. We owe so much to NASA, from things like invisible braces and scratch-resistant lenses to Teflon, among other things. Without space programs, we wouldn’t have the Global Positioning System, accurate weather prediction, solar cells, or the ultraviolet filters in sunglasses and cameras. There’s also medical research happening in space right now that could cure diseases and prolong human lives, and these experiments can’t be done on Earth. From the thermal space blankets used today by marathon runners at the end of races to the portable vacuum cleaners we now have in our homes, space research has bequeathed surprising and pleasing innovations that we non-astronauts use every day. Space exploration could save your life.

4. Perspective. Space is a challenging place to visit and it requires this planet’s best and brightest to solve the unique problems that exist there. The results are often spectacular and can be applied to solving problems right here on Earth. So whether it is healthier baby food, technology to diagnose breast cancer, or simply golf balls that fly farther, space technology is everywhere.

5. Stimulating national industry. Most of NASA’s expenditure on space science goes to industry for the construction of spacecraft. It should be seen not as a financial penalty for doing space science, but as an investment in the future of America’s high-tech industries. Exploring space is an opportunity not only to discover new worlds and build advanced technologies, but also to work together toward a larger goal irrespective of nationality, race or gender. If we stop exploring, we stop being human.

6. Intuitive and compelling. When Charles Lindbergh was asked why he crossed the Atlantic, he never once answered that he wanted to win the Orteig Prize of US$25,000 for the first non-stop aircraft flight between New York and Paris. If you ask Burt Rutan why he built the private SpaceOne spacecraft, it wasn’t for the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million; it was because it was one of the last unconquered feats in aviation. I think we all know why people strive to accomplish such things. They do so for reasons that are intuitive and compelling to all of us but that are not necessarily logical.

7. Motivating a new generation. It certainly appears to me that in order to be successful, space-exploration advocates need reasons beyond science to convince the public, and many of the arguments advanced to date are less than compelling. A deep-space exploration program might well be exciting, and offer motivation to a new generation, but is this the best way, or the only way, to motivate youth to study math and science?

8. National security. The US space program was a great example of what humans can do when they set their minds to it, and the sharp drop in interest by the public after we reached the moon showed how little most people realize the enormous benefits gained through space exploration. In today’s contentious political atmosphere, it’s highly unlikely there will ever again be enough people who realize the big-picture benefits to secure appropriate funding for serious space exploration, and we’ll be limited to dabbling with unmanned devices every so often. It’s sad that it took the fear that the Chinese would beat NASA to make America’s space exploration a priority again.

9. We’re explorers. Americans are of the strong belief that there are more practical reasons for space exploration, but one of the principal reasons we must continue is that we’re explorers. That’s why we’ve endeavored to learn more about the world around us, and this allowed us to build civilization. It was just a few years ago that we confirmed the existence of dark matter, and we could not have done so without the space exploration. What is the value of knowledge like that? I cannot begin to guess.

10. Caring for Earth. To look after our planet wisely, we must first know why it is so different from the other planets, in its geology, oceans, atmosphere and life. NASA’s deep-space missions to the comets, to Titan and to Mars all seek clues to the peculiar history of the Earth. Space exploration helps to address fundamental questions about our place in the universe and the history of our solar system. Through addressing the challenges related to space exploration, we see how special our planet is and understand the need to protect it from ending up with a similar fate to other worlds’.

11. Competitiveness. I was a child in the 1960s, a time when many of us believed that someday we would be flying off into the cosmos in search of adventure. Decades later, I continue to believe that humanity still has a chance to become a truly spacefaring race, and that we must find a way to do so. In the end the question for us Americans is whether we would wish to sit back and leave space for the Chinese, Japanese and Europe’s citizens to explore. If not, we must either create our own spacecraft or more credibly renew our commitment to NASA’s space exploration program.

12. Answering the big questions. Finally, space exploration involves massive risks and seemingly impossible objectives. So why should we commit ourselves to it? It could answer that eternal question: Are we alone in the universe? So far, the Kepler space telescope has unveiled a long list of other “Earths” situated in inhabitable belts around their respective stars. They are all potentially hospitable for life. In 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope will take on the mantle of chief hunter of worlds, and it could perhaps find an Earth-twin able to host forms of alien life.

That’s what I came up with. I think that, based on the reasons above, it is certainly worthwhile to spend 0.49% of the national budget on NASA.

There are scores of questions to be answered about both why we are going and how we will act when we are out there. From Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos building their own spacecraft, to NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Chinese planning settlements on the moon, deep-space exploration is already under way. China’s and Russia’s advances in the space realm are evidence that the United States is in a space race.

It’s not just competition against our adversaries. We’re also racing against our worst enemy – complacency.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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