Why We Need to Keep Going to Space and Shouldn't 'Fix Earth First'

There are many reasons why we need to keep going to space, not the least of which have to do with saving Earth.
Matthew S. Williams

“Shouldn’t we fix Earth first?” This question is like a modified version of Godwin’s Law. One need only raise the subject of space exploration and humanity becoming a multiplanetary species in the near future, and someone is sure to ask it before long. In fact, it’s about as popular as “how come we can send astronauts to the Moon, but we can’t [insert problem here]?” 

It’s not an unfair argument, and it certainly does seem well-intentioned. After all, why spend billions on various enterprises when poverty, hunger, homelessness, war, refugees crises, social injustice, and climate change are all around us? Wouldn't that money be better spent addressing these problems here at home?

But therein lies the problem. Whether it’s a matter of resources, priorities, or where we should focus our efforts, the assumption is that space-related activities take away from life here on Earth. But in truth, the advent of spaceflight and space-related research and development has benefitted humanity in innumerable ways.

In terms of technological applications, in terms of scientific advancement, in terms of medicine and health care, in terms of knowledge and inspiration, going to space has allowed us to grow as a species. It has taught us to appreciate what we have, and what we could become, and has allowed us to do things previous generations could only dream of.

A time-honored issue

The argument that going to space and dealing with problems at home is mutually exclusive is an enduring one. In fact, one can find examples of this criticism going all the way back to the dawn of the Space Age. For those who grew up during the "Space Race," the speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962 is sure to be familiar:

"We choose to go to the Moon! 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; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win..."

These rousing words were fondly remembered when, just seven years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to ever set foot on another celestial body. There too, famous words were spoken that become an instant source of inspiration:

"That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

And let's not forget the words that appear on the Lunar Plaque, which was mounted on the ladders of every Apollo Lunar Module. "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind." These words still reside at the Apollo Landing site in the Sea of Tranquility. 

But would it surprise you to know that there was actually considerable opposition to the Apollo Program, despite these accomplishments? According to Roger D. Launius, who served as NASA's Chief Historian between 1990 to 2002 and was the Associate Director of the National Air and Space Museum until 2017, the majority of Americans did not support going to the Moon.

As he wrote in a 2003 essay titled "Public opinion polls and perceptions of US human spaceflight":

"[M]any people believe that Project Apollo was popular, probably because it garnered significant media attention, but the polls do not support a contention that Americans embraced the lunar landing mission. Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda."

Much of the opposition was motivated by the social upheaval taking place in the US during the 1960s. At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was fighting against segregation, and many African-Americans were struggling at the margins of society, many saw the Apollo Program as a glaring example of the federal government's misplaced priorities.

For example, in an editorial in the Los Angeles Sentinel, Brooker Griffin wrote:

"It would appear that the fathers of our nation would allow a few thousand hungry people to die for the lack of a few thousand dollars while they would contaminate the moon and its sterility for the sake of 'progress' and spend billions of dollars in the process, while people are hungry, ill-clothed, poorly educated (if at all)."

In 1971, 200 African-Americans marched on Cape Canaveral to protest during the Apollo 14 launch. Hosea Williams, a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), spoke with a reporter from the Rome News-Tribune, saying: "We are not protesting America's achievements in outer space, we are protesting our country's inability to choose humane priorities."

Musician Gil Scott-Heron also voiced opposition to America's space program with his song, "Whitey on the Moon." The song ironically lauds the accomplishments of the Apollo astronauts while juxtaposing them with the realities of being a Black person living in 1960s America and struggling to get by.

For others, the issue of high spending was the main point of opposition. Somehow, the thought of sending astronauts to the Moon to "collect rocks" didn't justify spending billions in taxpayer dollars. While public perception of the Apollo program has improved with time, opposition to committing public funds to spaceflight has not.

In 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing, the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted an opinion poll. When asked if sending astronauts back to the moon was important, only 23% said yes, while 40% said it was not. Of sending crewed missions to Mars, 27% supported the idea, while 38% did not.

On its face, the opposition seems well-founded and well-intentioned. But one must wonder why space exploration is the focal point of anger over high spending and problematic priorities? Is it simply because spaceflight is high profile, is it because the benefits of space exploration are undervalued and/or misunderstood, or a little from Column A and a little from Column B?

Regardless, it is clear that spaceflight suffers from an image problem. As famed science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein once expressed, "[I]n one respect, NASA has fallen flat on its face. Its publicity is terrible, and has been right along." With that in mind, a careful review of the arguments against going to space appears to be in order.

"Shouldn't we fix Earth first?"

That's certainly a fair question, and it makes a good point. We have to do more to address the myriad of problems we face here on Earth. But why is it assumed that going to space steals focus from them, or that it's an either/or situation? It’s not unlike saying, “We should fix the economy first, then worry about the environment.” Where is it written that we can't do both?

More importantly, there is the inherent (and rather obvious) assumption that space exploration doesn't benefit people here on Earth. This assumption is pervasive, which is why in 1976 NASA decided to create a publication that shared with the public all of the commercial and industrial applications resulting from their research.

This publication is known as NASA Spinoff, which is responsible for highlighting all of the technologies the administration has made available to the public through the NASA Technology Transfer Program (TTP). 

In 1979, in a bid to raise awareness about the spinoffs, Heinlein delivered a speech during a series of joint hearings before Congress. In this speech, he explained why the name "spinoff" was chosen and how NASA-funded research has benefited countless people who just didn't know it:

"'Spinoffs' is a fancy way of saying serendipitous results, which simply means look for one thing and find something else. This happens all the time in science, particularly in pure research... A thing that [NASA has] failed to do with this matter of the spinoffs, the serendipitous results, is to make the hookup so that people know about it.

"In fact, the most ironical thing I know of about our space program is that there are thousands of people alive today who would be dead if it were not for spinoffs from the space program and who have not the slightest idea that such is the case, and they complain about all that money being spent on silly stunts, and often they make that complaint by long distance with a satellite bounce."

Heinlein went on to outline four important technologies that were made possible thanks to NASA-funded research - computer-assisted tomography (CAT), image-enhancement technology, catheters, and the Doppler ultrasound stethoscope. These technologies, Heinlein explained, were what allowed him to undergo the vascular bypass operation a year before that saved his life.

In fact, NASA-funded research has led to more than 2,000 spinoffs since 1976 that have had applications for medicine, biotechnology, communications, home appliances, consumer products, robotics, clean energy, heat-resistant materials, and industrial processes.

Some of the better-known examples include solar panels, communication satellites, Earth observation satellites, microwaves, memory foam, freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, thermal blankets, DustBusters, cochlear implants, active-pixel image sensors, air filtration systems, water filtration systems, and many, many more!

For a full run-down on how NASA research has led to tangible benefits (possibly in your area), check out the Spinoff website here.

"It steals focus."

Another common argument is that space exploration diverts not just resources but expertise and attention away from problems here at home. For some reason, it is assumed that going to space makes us appreciate Earth less, when in truth, there are numerous examples of how it encourages us to appreciate Earth more.

This is perfectly illustrated by the Overview Effect, which refers to the shift in consciousness that comes with seeing the Earth from space. Noted author and philosopher Frank White coined this term to describe the experience every astronaut in the history of spaceflight has reported during their time in space and/or upon their return to Earth.

Astronaut Michael Collins described this experience when talking about piloting the Apollo 11 Command Module: "The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile."

This same feeling has been described by noted astronauts and cosmonauts from all over the world, including Sally Ride, Scott Kelly, Chris Hadfield, Anne McClain, Mike Massimino, Tom Jones, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man to ever go to space. Upon returning to Earth, Gagarin related how the most profound part of the mission was not looking into the depths of space, but upon planet Earth:

"Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet," he said. "People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, and not destroy it."

Also, consider the Gaia Hypothesis, the scientific theory that posits that the Earth is a single, interdependent system, where every organism, feedback-loop, and chemical cycle work together to maintain the conditions that are favorable to life. The hypothesis owes its existence to NASA scientist Dr. James E. Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis

Lovelock's inspiration came from his work with NASA, which consisted of developing scientific instruments that could model the atmospheres and climates of Mars and other planets. In comparing the environments of other planets to Earth, they realized how complex and precious Earth's environment is.

In addition, the climatological research conducted by NASA since the 1960s is what led scientists to conclude that humanity is having a severe impact on the environment. For instance, Earth observations satellites (using the very instruments Lovelock designed) were responsible for the discovery of ozone depletion caused by CFCs.

These same satellites and climate models led scientists to realize that the growing consumption of fossil fuels and the resulting carbon emissions led to a Greenhouse Effect. Since then, the NASA Earth Science Division (ESD) and its Earth science initiatives have provided regular updates on the effects of climate change and helped support calls for action.

"Money better spent on..."

Here is a rather popular variant, where it's argued that the billions spent on spaceflight would be better spent alleviating poverty and other problems here at home. On its face, it certainly seems like a valid point. We could always use more money combatting want, scarcity, poverty, and misery. It's outrageous how common and persistent these things are!

But it begins to show cracks the moment you dig into it or examine it from other angles. Once again, why is it assumed that money not directed towards spaceflight would otherwise be spent on economic, social, and environmental problems? And if all space programs today were shelved, are we really to believe that money saved would be put towards humanitarian causes?

Second, you’d be hard-pressed to find an investment with the same amount of returns as space exploration. According to one estimate, every dollar spent during the Apollo Era resulted in a $7−$8 return on investment (ROI) thanks to the spinoffs and commercial applications that resulted. Today, that ROI has climbed to $40 for every dollar spent. Shop around. You can’t beat that!

Third, if we’re going to talk about “money better spent elsewhere,” why are we singling out space exploration, which costs less and comes with far more payoffs than other expenditures? In truth, there's plenty of examples of wasteful spending that yield comparatively little (or nothing) by comparison.

For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the healthcare costs and loss of productivity caused by cigarettes account for $300 billion a year. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2015 the world's richest nations spent $21 billion on health care and lost 1.2 billion workdays due to illnesses caused by air pollution.

By 2060, that's projected to increase to 3.7 billion lost workdays, which will result in a global loss of $2.6 trillion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually. Even worse than that is the fact that an estimated 6-9 million people are likely to die annually between now and then because of worsening air quality associated with urban growth.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the world spends roughly $5 trillion USD a year subsidizing the oil and coal industries, which constitutes about 85% of all annual global subsidies. Meanwhile, renewable energy sources like solar and wind have become price-competitive with oil and coal without the same level of financial assistance!

There are two ways to look at this. At best, we are spending trillions of dollars to ensure that gas prices remain within a certain threshold for the good of the consumer. At worst, we are financing the very industries driving climate change, and when we need to be transitioning to clean energies, that will actually cost less!

Critics of the Apollo Program (1961-1972) routinely cited how the billions spent on going to the Moon would have been better spent addressing poverty, underdevelopment, the rising cost of food and living, and other problems in the US. But in truth, the US government never spent more than a tiny portion of its Gross-Domestic Product (GDP) on spaceflight during this period.

All told, the US government spent a total of around $25.4 billion on the Apollo Program over the course of 11 years. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to around $175 billion today and an average of around $16 billion adjusted dollars a year. Add to that the costs of the Mercury (1958-1963) and Gemini Program (1961-1966), and you get an adjusted total of around $179 billion.

In terms of the national budget, these expenditures constituted about 0.1% of the nation's GDP in 1958, 4.5% in 1966 (at its peak), and less than 1% again by 1975. Now compare that to military spending during the same period, especially between 1955-1975 when the US became embroiled in the Vietnam War.

The expense of deploying American forces in Vietnam cost a total of $168 billion, or $1 trillion today. In addition to that, the draft fell disproportionately on the poor and working-class, who could not afford school deferments. In total, military expenditures during this entire period accounted for 10-13% of GDP from 1955 to 1966 and 11%-17% of GDP from 1967 to 1975.

In 2018, the US government allocated a total of $890.8 billion for the sake of defense spending, which represented a 9 to 21% increase over the previous ten years. In that same year, the entire world spent an estimated $72.34 billion USD on space. What did that get us?

In summary, if we are going to discuss where money should be spent, perhaps we should a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted first. Because once that is complete, we're likely to notice that as a species, we spend far more money on far less noble endeavors.

“Nothing but billionaires playing in space!”

This appears to be a common sentiment these days, which is generally raised in response to big names in the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) making headlines - e.g., Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, et al. Much like saying that space exploration takes away from Earth, there are many who doubt that New Space ventures are anything other than a billionaires ego trip.

At best, the criticisms tend to assert that commercial space is something that will only ever benefit the super-rich. At worst, there are those who actually accuse Musk, Bezos, and others of plotting to leave Earth before climate change or some other cataclysm causes civilization to collapse - abandoning anyone who can't afford to go with them in the process.

Granted, space tourism is an industry that only people with a lot of disposable income will be able to afford in the coming years. But the ultimate purpose is to bring the associated costs of going to space down so that more and more people can enjoy it. In addition, it would be foolish to conflate all commercial space ventures with this one aspect of it. 

Since 2001, Elon Musk has spearheaded the development of reusable rockets and space systems through his company SpaceX, with impressive results. Between 1970 and 2000, the average cost of sending payloads to space was about ~$8,400 per lbs ($18,500 per kilogram). Thanks in part to the development of rockets like the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, that cost is now $1,235 and $640 per lbs ($2,719 and $1,410 per kg), respectively.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has also indicated that his long-term aim is to use paid flights with the New Shepard launch vehicle to fund the development of heavy rockets - like the New Glenn and the New Armstrong - and the necessary infrastructure for regular trips to space. The ultimate goal, he said, is to ensure humanity's future in space and ensure that Earth is safeguarded:

"We’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build the future. We need to do that. We need to do that to solve the problems here on earth. This is not about escaping Earth... The whole point is this is the only good planet in this solar system. We’ve sent robotic probes to all of them. This is the only good one. I promise you, and we have to take care of it"

Critics of Branson’s space-related venture, Virgin Galactic, claim that suborbital commercial flights will benefit no one but the super-rich. With an advertised price tag of $450,000, this is certainly understandable. But as spaceflights become a common occurrence, prices will drop, and accessibility will increase (what guys like Branson have been saying all along). 

In the meantime, Branson has created Space for Humanity to allow people other than the super-rich to fly. Through their Sponsored Citizen Astronaut Program, this nonprofit will train citizens and leaders to become “citizen astronauts,” a program that culminates with a ride to space aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceplane.

The company has also partnered with Omaze, a fundraising company that partners with charities, to launch a giveaway where those who pledge support for Space For Humanity can win free trips with Virgin Galactic.

In addition, NASA and other space agencies have a very long history of partnering with commercial entities to develop the tools and equipment they need. At its peak, the Apollo Program employed over 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms. Today, that tradition continues, albeit to a lesser extent.

In the past few decades, multiple commercial space companies have partnered with NASA and other space agencies to provide technological, logistical, and launch services to the International Space Station (ISS). Many of these same companies are Artemis Partners and are currently building the necessary elements that will take astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since 1972.

Space Race 2.0

Given the way humanity is poised to make the next great leap into space, it is good to ask questions about budgets, priorities, and what our goals for the future should be. But once a full and fair assessment of spaceflight is considered, it seems pretty clear that the kind of future we want for our children cannot happen without space exploration.

During the last Space Age, the desire to go to space and put a "man on the Moon" resulted in hundreds of technological spinoffs that have benefited countless people here on Earth. It also led to widespread job creation, particularly in skilled trades. And let's not forget how decades later, the Moon Landing still manages to inspire and remind us of what we can accomplish.

In the age of renewed space exploration that we now find ourselves in, the focus has shifted dramatically. Rather than simply getting there or "getting there first," the purpose is to create what we need to conduct long-duration missions to locations in deep space. In other words, our goal now is to "go back to the Moon to stay" and then use our presence there to reach beyond.

For this, space agencies and the commercial space industry are researching spacecraft that can sustain crews for long-duration flights, but also the technology for habitats and life support systems that can ensure astronaut survival in a hostile environment for extended periods of time.

This means creating closed-loop systems that can provide steady supplies of food, water, and air while producing zero waste. This technology is based entirely on the study of Earth's natural systems, which are themselves part of a massive closed-loop system that is regenerative, waste-free, and has maintained Earth's habitability for billions of years.

The technologies and spinoffs that this research will lead to include facilities that can grow plants in hostile environments, water reclamators, air filtration, carbon capture systems, and environmental engineering. Each and every one of these technologies will have endless applications here on Earth, where solutions for sustainable living will also be a matter of survival.

As Dr. Sian Proctor, a geology professor, commercial astronaut, and famous science communicator would say: “Solving for space solves for Earth.” Dr. Proctor will be the mission pilot on the upcoming three-day Inspiration4 flight, where the first all-civilian flight in history will fly to space aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Looking to the future...

Like the Olympic Games, space exploration has always been a great unifier, bringing people and nations together in the spirit of exploitation and discovery. Even during the height of the Cold War, people all around the world were united in celebration as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova became the first man and first woman to go to space.

On July 20th, 1969, people on both sides of the "Iron Curtain" celebrated as humans took their first steps on the Moon. Decades later, we still remember what was accomplished during those heady days and draw inspiration from it. We're also reaping the benefits of all the commercial, medical, industrial, and scientific breakthroughs it produced (whether we realize it or not).

Today, space exploration is no longer a competition between two superpowers but has broadened to become a much more cooperative enterprise between many state and private actors. If we hope to tackle the growing problems caused by climate change, as well as the enduring problems of poverty, injustice, war, and petty rivalries, we will need to come together like never before.

The benefits and knowledge that we stand to reap from going to space to stay will help ensure that by promoting sustainability, cost-effectiveness, and resource utilization. Having access to the abundant resources of space could also help usher in an age where scarcity (the very basis of wealth and poverty) has been eliminated.

As Kennedy intimated in his famous speech at Rice University, going to space is and always will be hard. But the payoffs for doing so are monumental, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with it lasts for generations. By putting humans on the Moon before the decade was out, a generation of people showed themselves what they were capable of.

Since the Apollo Era, we've gone even further, establishing space stations in orbit like the Salyuts, Mir, Skylab, and the ISS. We've developed reusable rockets and spaceplanes that have reduced launch costs substantially. We've also sent robotic probes to every corner of the Solar System, and a few have even made it into interstellar space.

But more important than the rockets, spacecraft, and various technological spinoffs, the greatest thing to come from the Space Age was arguably the inspiration it still provides decades later. After all, there's a reason why sayings like "shoot for the Moon," "Moonshot," and "reach for the stars" endure.

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