Should Have Sent A Poet: A Word In Favour Of The Space Program

If you’re Canadian, you likely saw a clip of Commander Chris Hadfield’s cover of Space Oddity on the evening news. For the rest of the world it’s been bouncing about on social networks to the tune of several million views.

Even Bowie noticed and tipped his hat in the Commander’s direction. Praise indeed to catch the notice and approval of the artist you’re covering.

Now, obviously Hadfield wasn’t sent into space to jam. During his time on the station he engaged in 130 different experiments, and even helped set a station record for over 71 hours in a week devoted to scientific experimentation. During his free moments, Commander Hadfield was gracious enough to reach out to those of us on Earth and share what life is like in a little tin can floating far above the world. We got to learn how a zero gravity environment impacts simple biological aspects of life like crying, or trimming our nails or eating dinner. He shared his amazing view through hundreds of thousands of photographs. And in his offtime he played the guitar.

Now a brief word about the instrument. The guitar was a $100,000 payload, back when it was delivered into space in 2001, it’s purpose to provide a creative outlet for the astronauts to aid in their psychological well-being. All work and no play

But the Space Oddity video being the most publicised aspect of the Commander’s journey has raised the same questions that have dogged the space program since before President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University declared, “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.

Why go to space? Why waste billions of dollars to dump new garbage up into orbit or learn that there are rocks on Mars? There is no shortage of problems on Earth that need our dollars to solve so why fritter those dollars away when there are so many in need? In short: what good is a space program when there are empty bellies and injustice here on Earth?

That is what the space program has given us.
Perspective and context of who we are in this existence.

That ten minutes of revelation is easily worth a half trillion in expenditure.

But dollars and cents are the root of the argument against a space program so let’s get down to dollars and cents.

The US space program has averaged an annual expenditure of 9 billion dollars over the past 50 years. But billions are dollar amounts that start to get too abstract to keep a view on for the average person, so let’s break it down to the average person. The annual cost for the average American to keep the space program going is $28.67. Just under $30 a year.

Just under $30 a year has put a man on the moon, allowed us to view the furthest regions of the cosmos with the Hubble, sent probes to each of the planets and beyond our solar system and peppered our orbit with devices giving us communications with the most distant edges of the globe and providing us with a wealth of data about our world.

Now compare to the many other ways an average American spends their money in any given year…

$2,260 per person on military spending
$490 per person on alcohol ($305 of that being beer)
$372 per person on fast food
$209 per person on handguns and rifles
$206 per person on pop
$162 per person on pets (which includes $1 for halloween costumes to dress the pets up in)
$107 per person on alternative medicine
$80 per person on going to professional sports games
$35 per person on bottled water
$35 per person on coffee
$32 per person on romance novels
$13 per person on perfume
$7 per person on tattoos
$5 per person on flowers for Valentine’s day
$0.83 per person for total ad spend on Super Bowl
$0.08 per person for daily fireworks displays at Walt Disney World

Now it also needs to be pointed out that there was $947 per person in charitable donations. This isn’t an either/or situation. It is possible to spend money on space exploration and spend money on addressing societal problems. But if we’re to raise the question of priorities, I think it is quite clear there is a long line of frivolities and luxuries that could fall by the wayside long before we get around to the space program. America could set aside their harmless indulgence in “Fifty Shades of Grey” and other bodice rippers and be able to fully fund the space program and have enough left over for a latte.

Of course, that’s treating the space program as if it were a consumption. As if we’re just firing these things into the air for the spectacle of it all. Money piled into a rocket and then fired into the heart of the sun. But the money spent on a space program isn’t actually spent in space. It’s spent here, on Earth. That money leads to jobs, thousands of them and many in highly specialized and technical fields. Those jobs provide a need for industry and infrastructure. All of which, in turn, provide taxes and spending that benefit local and regional economies.

The things we fire up into space are not just deadweight. They’re designed to actually do something. Some are feeding us back detailed information about our own planet. Time was weather analysis was a roll of the dice as you were limited to the data within your line of site. Now we can model the entirety of the Earth, we can track every shift and change in conditions and even have three dimensional views into the very heart of a storm. All of which provides better understanding of our planet and allows us to generate predictions with increasing reliability days, even weeks in advance. We can’t control the weather yet, but we can much better manage our lives around it and mitigate the damage it does to property and life.

The GPS that’s standard in almost every phone and vehicle is a product of our space program, but more than just a means of keeping you from getting lost it has allowed for a level of efficiency from industry that would have been impossible a few decades ago. Every shipment of inventory can be located around the globe with a precision of a metre or two. The time of arrival predicted to within minutes. Where businesses had to devote significant capital investment into maintaining an inventory, the world has moved to a ‘just in time’ level of operation where the inventory is ordered as required and timed to reach the factory or store only at the moment it is needed.

There was a time when communication was limited to line of site or required the laying of cables. Satellites now cary a tremendous amount of the world’s communications.

There are immediate benefits to the space program, but the program continues to deliver benefits years later as the advances in technology required to achieve the goals of the space program are spun off into Earth-bound applications. Firefighters have lighter breathing equipment resulting in fewer injuries. School busses have stronger chassis from lightweight material resulting in safer travel without sacrificing fuel efficiency. Non-invasive diagnostics to improve the early detection of cataracts, Alzheimer’s, damage from radiation, environmental toxicity and diabetes. Digital imaging and sensory technology that was developed to detect extremely faint objects in space is now applied to mammography, providing much more accurate and earlier detection than analog x-rays allowed. Microgravity environments allow cell cultures to grow in homogeneous distribution, allowing more accurate study of the growth of cancerous cells and a better understanding of which treatments are more effective. Anyone receiving cancer treatment today is very likely seeing the side benefits from an 80’s shuttle mission and NASA research.

Not everything will have an immediate practical application. Some knowledge we gain may never have a practical application. But every mission and every probe and every piece of equipment we send into space increases what we know of our universe and ourselves. Again, that perspective and context that may not give us a new gizmo or doodad but enriches our lives and lends us meaning and understanding.

But again, when we get down to pure dollars and cents, for every dollar put into the space program, there is an $8 return to the economy.

But if the economic argument fails to convince and the quest for knowledge is not considered valid enough, then all else aside, the argument for a space program is quite literally falling from the sky. Meteors. Asteroids. Nature’s way of asking, “How’s that space program coming along.”

Sources: American Pet Product Association, Beverage Marketing Group, Brewer’s Association, Consumer Reports, Congressional Research Service, Fast Food Marketing, Franchise Direct, INC., NASA, National Soft Drinks Association, National Retail Federation, Romance Writers of America, WR Hambrecht, and when in doubt – Wikipedia

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