Funding our curiosity
Financial support has always been a major factor behind any scientific endeavor. Perhaps no other financial investment is as risky as an investment into launching something into space. Even before anything gets launched, there’s a lot of initial capital required for hiring the best talent, designing & prototyping rockets, building ground and recovery infrastructure. All to finally launch a rocket that can easily blow up even before reaching the desired altitude & velocity. Many blow up on the launch pad itself.
On top of that, public space programs take an even greater scientific risk and are usually behind schedule or over budget. So it’s only fair to ask why should anyone pay attention to these space programs? For some, this simple answer might suffice — it’s where your tax dollars go.
Almost $50 Billion was spent from NASA’s budget the last time we went to the moon. No financial investment at the time would have meant Apollo doesn’t rise and humanity doesn’t take its giant leap.
Scientific progress & the Military
Throughout human history, it has not really been a secret that military needs have fueled many of our scientific endeavors. Recent examples include development of chemical weapons along with better weapons and deadlier ammunitions during the Great War. Then with World War 2, there were advances in radar, unleashing of nuclear energy as part of the Manhattan project, advances in medicine and plenty of improvements to aircrafts. Without the involvement of the scientific community, these wars would not have had their intended explosiveness.
On the surface, it might seem that the field of astrophysics wasn’t directly involved with the military. But as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, from the days of Galileo, there has been an unspoken alliance between astrophysics and the military. Galileo was considered the father of observational astronomy. Once he perfected the telescope, he immediately realized its military significance. He showed the leaders of Venice that they could observe ships approaching the harbor from a greater distance, allowing them to determine if the ships were a threat or not.
The Space race required astrophysicists and engineers to build deadlier and more accurate weapon systems. The whole V2 program under USA and USSR was basically a controlled scientific experiment with military use being the primary purpose. Later, with the development of satellites, the military needed them to look down on hostile targets, while the astronomers needed them to look up towards the cosmos. Development of the Hubble telescope is a great example of this alliance as many of its components were first developed for military usage.
It’s a two way street where scientific community gets the funding to conduct research, and the military gets to achieve its goals. But these goals don’t always align. The obvious conflict comes from the fact that the scientific endeavor is a collaborative one. The walls created by our divisions only slow down the scientific progress. Prominent examples include Einstein having to leave Germany as it turned hostile towards the minorities and scientists standing up against nuclear proliferation.
That’s why science literacy is even more important as it teaches us how to deal with our biases & prejudices. Hopefully we can overcome our divisions on the ground and aim higher for our mutual benefit.
NASA & Us
Technical innovations needed for space programs are also directly used to improve our daily lives on Earth. This includes benefits from the Apollo program to current research happening aboard the International Space Station, such as repurposing resilient materials & new fabrics for our clothes, development of digital camera & LED lighting, and so much more.
One of the less obvious ones are the grooves on the off-ramps of highways that save many lives. NASA needed to have its space shuttle land safely when returning from missions. These shuttles were effectively gliders, i.e they had very little maneuverability. To keep the spacecraft on the runway, NASA grooved the sides of the runway. This allowed the spacecraft’s wheels to stay in alignment with the runway. Now anyone could have developed this technique, but the fact that no one did that before goes to show you can’t place limits or controls on scientific curiosity.
NASA has had a massive impact on Aeronautics. Which makes sense as the first ‘A’ in NASA stands for Aeronautics. The list of improvements include — more efficient design of wings & engines that increases their range and life, improvement in aircraft safety with deicing to avoid reduction in lift and better guidance controls. Even basic enhancements like detecting drops in cabin pressure. Next phase of research is continued improvement in aircraft performance to reduce our carbon footprint.
NASA’s contribution on understanding Earth’s climate by building a climate model cannot be understated. As Adam Frank points out, it’s an uncelebrated triumph of humanity. NASA continues to contribute to climate science.
It’s important to restate that public investment had to be first as space is too risky for private enterprises to justify massive losses without a clear path to profitability. The further we want to go, the more astronomically the cost rises. This has historically limited the scope of investments to be only from the government’s budget.
With decades of successful missions, NASA has now created financial opportunities for private enterprises to get more directly involved — regardless of any obstacles congress laid in their path. Private investments are now able to turn the challenges of space exploration into business opportunities.
A good example is NASA’s supply missions for the International Space Station (ISS). Its financing and crew that live onboard come from several countries. Enabling astronauts to perform important scientific experiments uninterrupted requires a constant shipping of supplies. These shipments are expensive for NASA, with few alternatives.
One of the reasons the cost has remained high is because both military and scientific missions are usually carrying precious cargo. Which means that reliability outweighs the cost. No one wants to spare any expense to avoid the chance of a spectacular disaster. However, this leads to a negative incentive for contractors wanting to take NASA for a ride. In other words, the clients looking to go to space don’t care if it’s $100 Million or $400 Million. Lack of options means the price always goes up.
But an upward pressure on the number of flights required and a downward pressure on available budget created opportunities for private firms to do this in a more economical way. SpaceX rose up to the challenge and reimagined rocketry itself. The solution seemed quite basic — reuse the core rocket stage after every successful delivery. Easier said than done, but the fuel itself is a fraction of the cost of the rocket. So by reusing the rocket it costs between $58 million to $90 million a ride. These savings are too significant to ignore. Reusability also makes it possible to do missions more frequently as you are not building everything from scratch.
Difficult to imagine now that SpaceX nearly went bankrupt after three consecutive failed attempts. But the SpaceX team persevered for one more launch, which, as history will show, changed the way space missions are financed. If you have seen the James Bond movie, “You only live twice”, the villain uses a rocket that captures other spacecrafts and then lands them back on earth. Hats off to the SpaceX team for actually making this science fiction into a reality.
SpaceX has now ramped up its launch cadence to almost once a week and made NASA as one of its important customers. This public-private partnership is now going to be the blueprint for missions like Artemis.
This transition proves that public space programs create economic conditions for private enterprises to grow and thrive.
Next, we’ll look at significant space missions that significantly increased our understanding of the Cosmos. It’s impossible to list them all, so the following articles will be an incomplete list of missions that have inspired me personally.
In the hope that next time when someone asks you why invest in space programs, the story of these missions will inspire you to look beyond their monetary significance. My own would be something along the lines of — it’s where humanity comes face to face with its own mortality; it’s where dreamers inspire a planet of lonely souls to step into the unknown; it’s where that step turns into ‘one giant leap’.