The Case for Space

As Americans, we have a solution to our problems at our disposal that we are not taking advantage of.  We have a shortage of STEM skills in our population.  We have a terrible unemployment and under employment problem.  We have a need to provide for our national defense and assert our international dominance, even in peace time.  And we are faced by one of the most terrifying problems our world has ever known: climate change.  We have one agency that is prepared to solve literally all these problems in one fell swoop, if we would just have the courage to fund it at even a fraction of the level we currently fund our defense force.

NASA is the ultimate application of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math skills (STEM).  This is an agency that gives clear purpose to the esoteric skills we learn when we master the sciences, and pushes forward the limits of our technology by challenging it to do what has never been done before.  It gives us opportunity to learn and apply our engineering skills repeatedly, because every time we want to visit a new world, we need new technology to function there.  When a young student asks “Why would I ever need to know this?” during their science class, NASA gives us a concrete example to point to.

NASA also has the potential to be the best jobs program we have ever seen, if we are willing to operate it that way.  FDR was often criticized that his jobs programs would pay one group of people dig a ditch, only to pay another group of people to fill that ditch in the next day.  NASA creates jobs with purpose at literally every skill level, and gives our country a direct way to build and maintain our cadre of engineers and scientists.  Our industries want experienced engineers, and NASA can give that to them.  While people are at NASA, they do not need to be idle, but can push forward all the limits of our knowledge.  FDR was infamous for having multiple teams working independently on the same problem to create extra jobs, but as a side effect that policy also built the level of experience and skill available because so many more people were able to practice and participate.  Instead of struggling with cost overruns and unfinished projects, sometimes FDR was able to choose from several options once the projects were complete.  There was some grumbling that some teams felt like they were working “for nothing”, but in doing so they built the skills that would make the United States an industrial leader.  On the national level, a policy like this can eliminate the endless cost overruns from businesses simply from the knowledge that, even if they do not finish a project, their competition will and the job will end anyway. The skills that can be practiced at NASA are not limited, but touch every STEM field.

Yes, the most visible elements of NASA are the rockets, astronauts, and engineers.  There are also technicians who operate equipment, doctors who monitor astronauts’ health, and programmers who automate our probes.  There are scientists who plumb the depths of the secrets of the universe, finding gems of knowledge that we had never seen before.  Our engineers can then take that knowledge and make tools to solve problems we did not even know we had.  This agency invented imaging techniques for the purpose of viewing space, but that get applied in MRI scans.  NASA developed plastics for helmet visors that we now use in our eye glasses, saving our eyes from broken glass (Can you believe that glasses used to be made of glass?).  NASA invented a way to clean up behind itself (emulsified zero-valent iron, or EZVI), so that even the chemical mistakes of rocket fuel were not a long-term problem.  NASA advances in medicine uplift our doctors, helping them diagnose and treat disease.  NASA even pushes psychology to new frontiers when it analyzes how long-isolated teams behave.  NASA also stimulates our economy in the long term with its inventions, creating opportunities in industry where there were none before.  There is no kind of STEM job that NASA cannot influence.

NASA also lets us assert our dominance in the world in the most noble and inspiring way possible.  This gives us political clout that is difficult to measure.  The Apollo missions are famous around the world, and allowed the United States to compete directly with the USSR without firing a single shot.  The International Space Station has literally brought even our greatest rivals (Russia, formerly the USSR) together to work with our country.  Access to space was and remains an international issue, as every nation wants access to satellites even if they do not have the means to launch them for themselves.  For years, the Space Shuttle was the tractor-trailer of space, ferrying the heaviest burdens for grateful countries.  Its ability to carry huge loads into space gained us international favor that money can’t buy.  NASA gave us an upper hand in political negotiations, since no country wants to lose that access to space; conversely, NASA’s lack of funding in recent years is what gave Russians power over our own human access to space after we decommissioned the shuttles with no alternatives ready, and allowed them to expand their influence by taking over that role internationally.  If we want to win the hearts and minds of our enemies, NASA provides the easiest and most natural paths to do it, even before they are enemies.

NASA even bolsters our national defense by its nature.  Technology is famous for its moral ambiguity, since a civilian application can usually be turned into a weapon, and vice versa.  If you can put a rocket into orbit, you can also fire one to hit any point on earth.  The same telescopes that are pointed at the stars can just as easily be pointed at earth for reconnaissance.  Where NASA sees a coating for planetary re-entry, the military sees a coating for supersonic missiles.  The list goes on, but the important point is that NASA allows us to provide for national defense without the need to convince people in advance that sometimes killing is justified.  Once an enemy presents itself, the actual killing has an unpleasant way of justifying itself (even if there was a peaceful solution).  More pleasantly, the ability to quickly and utterly crush our enemies keeps us from having overt enemies at all, so that we can instead focus on building our country and solving our problems.

And one of the problems we are clearly facing is climate change.  Even the most extraordinary deniers cannot claim that change is not happening anymore, and NASA is the department most prepared to face this new threat to humanity.  The short of the problem is that temperatures are rising around the globe, and we must find new ways to operate that do not have so much impact on our earth.  I would argue that space colonization is the best way to approach this problem, because the problems of space colonization are the problems of earth.  How can we provide power without access to burning coal or oil?  How can we clean water contaminated with human waste and heavy metals so it is useful again?  How can we reduce the cost of our consumption without giving up the quality of life we have achieved?  Even if we did not follow through with the colonization itself, the technology developed can be put to use on earth in our near future.  Solar power has already made a dent in the emission of greenhouse gasses, but we need more solutions.  Yes, climate change is a big and scary problem.  We cannot hide from it, and basic decency will not let us take the unthinkable solution to reducing the human impact on earth.  We cannot wait until the problem is critical to solve it.  At best, this is a problem produced by two hundred years of industrialization, and will not be solved in two.  If this climate change actually were the result of natural processes, we might still be facing a mass extinction on a scale that has not been seen for hundreds of millions of years, when 90% of life on earth died.  Regardless, we have the means to confront this problem head on, if we can find the political will to fund the solution.

NASA is one of our nation’s greatest assets, but is being starved to pay for endless wars and direct business subsidies.  NASA is one of only two departments in government that literally inspires people to be willing to die for a cause.  Our government needs to recognize and respect the extraordinary power that this department has, and leverage it for the good of our country.

Supporting Links:

http://www.skepticalscience.com/Lee-commentary-on-Burgess-et-al-PNAS-Permian-Dating.html

http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/inventions/top-5-nasa-inventions.htm

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