OpEd: Space Exploration during an Economic Crisis

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  Space News Business

OpEd: Space Exploration during an Economic Crisis

By DAVID MOULD

posted: 02 April 2009
11:22 am ET






The daily barrage of bad economic news – soaring unemployment, sagging stock prices, bankruptcies, foreclosures and vanishing wealth – has battered the American psyche and eclipsed the national discussion about most other topics, including space exploration.

Tough and uncertain times make it difficult to keep lawmakers or the general public focused on government agencies such as NASA that are not seen as directly related to solving the economic crisis or do not seem to have significant impact on our daily lives. It is easy to argue that perhaps we, as a nation, should be spending far less money on such seemingly extravagant things as satellites, orbiting telescopes or trips to the international space station.

With people losing their jobs, life savings and homes, space exploration and space science seem far removed from
America
‘s current priorities, which prompts many people – if they discuss NASA at all – to question the seemingly astronomical costs of space missions and their relevance to everyday life. Critics wonder whether mankind should even return to the Moon, explore Mars or search for life on other worlds.

These questions are not easily dismissed, especially amid today’s financial turmoil. And those of us in the space business – who, of course, would never question the value of space exploration – should take such criticism to heart and understand its context. But we also should be mindful that in times like these, it is vitally important for the space community to proactively explain the relevance and rationale underpinning what we do and engage those outside our intensely focused community.

If there is one thing I have noticed in my years of explaining, promoting and defending NASA’s programs and budgets and covering NASA as a news reporter, it is that few members of the space community can articulate such a rationale – at a strategic level or with practical examples – to those outside the relatively small society of space enthusiasts. Many find it difficult to effectively communicate our passion for NASA’s work to those who have not “caught the space bug.” And, in the other extreme, some tend to defend space exploration with a certain religious zeal that prompts the snarkier observers of our industry to joke that the space program sometimes seems like another government faith-based initiative.

The space community can do better, and we must, if we are to ensure broad and deep public support. What we are doing in space exploration and space science is not simply an extravagance, but a necessity for our nation. And it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to explain why this is so.

Rather than hoping (or assuming) that the vast majority of Americans are as enamored as we are with space exploration, each of us needs to find that voice within ourselves that puts forward our own thoughtful and respectful rationale for exploring space in all its grandeur. We need to better explain why we believe it is worth allocating hard-earned taxpayer funds toward such goals. Not everyone will agree with our priorities, especially during these tough financial times, but we should not let the current economic anxiety overwhelm public support for our space program.

Here are some points that resonate with the American people and may help others find their voices when explaining the relevance and rationale for space exploration.

First, many people mistakenly believe NASA’s budget is much bigger than it actually is. A recent survey found that a large percentage of the American populace think NASA gets almost as much money as the Pentagon. When they learn that NASA actually receives only about one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget (and that’s before the trillion-dollar bailouts are counted), folks suddenly decide that space exploration is a pretty good bargain. Thus, we must try to put in perspective how NASA’s budget and the costs for our highly visible missions – along with the technical and scientific advancements that have resulted from them – compare with the other 99.5 percent of the proposed $3.6 trillion U.S. government budget. NASA’s budget is in the engineering realm of rounding error by comparison.

Second, we should be able and ready to list key innovations derived from space-related research, like the integrated circuit technology stemming from the Apollo program, GPS navigation, satellite communications, weather and Earth-monitoring satellites, all of which improve our quality of life and help move our economy forward in ways that far outweigh any narrow cost-benefit analysis for a particular spaceflight. We need to explain why it is important to study the inner workings of our sun to understand when solar flares might disrupt delicate satellite communications and electric power grids. We must remind people that almost all of the scientific data we have about Earth’s changing climate come from NASA satellites, and how space-born technologies could help solve some of society’s most pressing problems.

We need to articulate how NASA’s achievements with Apollo, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars rovers and a host of other missions have inspired millions of students worldwide to study math, science, engineering and other hard subjects to become part of building a brighter future, not only in space but other technical fields. These missions exemplify the can-do American spirit, which overcomes seemingly insurmountable challenges with ingenuity, determination and hard work. At a fundamental level, NASA is in the business of inspiration – which we certainly could use more of in these challenging times.

We must explain the simple, practical matter that the dollars spent on NASA’s missions are not simply launched into space but spent on Earth for the labor and material for our spacecraft and launch vehicles and the infrastructure that supports them, employing some of the world’s best and brightest scientists, engineers and technically trained minds in well-paying jobs.

Third, we must explain that exploration is really how
America
began. We must be able to tell how explorers and pioneers ventured out across sea and land to settle and expand this country and how in the grand sweep of human progress, it was their work and sacrifice that gave birth to our nation. Pioneering American inventors, scientists and businessmen helped usher in the industrial age that built the
U.S.
economy. American pioneers who mastered the art and science of aviation are largely responsible for the
United States
attaining superpower status in the 20th century.

If the frontier of the 20th century was aviation, the frontier of our new century is space. Almost every nation that is capable of exploring space is doing so. They do it because they can – and because they know it is important. It is a strategic component of world leadership in the 21st century. And this is no time for
America
to retreat from its strategic space-based capabilities or its pioneering heritage. History is strewn with examples of countries who retreated from the frontier of their age, because it was too expensive or they lost the focus or the interest or the will and, a generation later, found themselves no longer counted among the leaders of the world.

Today, space exploration is a little-recognized but tremendous source of soft power diplomacy for the
United States
. We should trumpet our leadership in the collaboration among countries building the international space station – the largest single peaceful project in the history of the world. This unprecedented partnership among spacefaring nations learning to live and work in an orbiting laboratory larger in wingspan than a football field is humanity’s first foothold in the next great wave of exploration – and the untold advancements and discoveries it will bring. Such international partnerships will prove necessary as we move outward again to the Moon and Mars to answer the question of whether mankind can live and work productively on other worlds.

No single argument is sufficient to justify our nation’s space program against all potential criticism and doubt. But we in the space community need to have carefully considered and compelling, yet succinct, rationales for justifying what we do, especially when such bold endeavors are called into question during trying times.

We must answer the critics and skeptics by reminding them of the space program’s contributions to the amazing advancements in technology – far-fetched or unheard-of things a few years ago that are deemed vital necessities today – which arose from the pioneering program that put a man on the Moon and America at the pinnacle of world power and prestige.

We have endured bad times before, and we will again. NASA’s Apollo missions occurred during the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when an unpopular war divided our country amid social upheaval and economic turmoil. With the passage of time, many of us have forgotten that critics back then branded the Apollo program as an unnecessary and overpriced “moondoogle” that would rob resources from other worthy and more-pressing causes. And few recall the soul-searching uncertainty about our ability to ever reach the Moon in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire.

Instead, we only seem to remember the magic moment when Neil Armstrong made that “one small step.” Especially as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo this year, those of us in the space community must be relentless advocates and effective ambassadors to the American public for space exploration if we hope to sustain this long journey of discovery beyond Earth, over multiple administrations and Congresses, in good times and bad. Because as countries around the world move ahead with their own pursuits of space-based capability, and the power and prestige that comes with it, it has never been more important for
America
to maintain its leadership in pushing the frontier.

David Mould is a former editor and space reporter for United Press International, and served as NASA’s assistant administrator for public affairs from 2005 until 2009. The views expressed are solely his own.