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One of this week’s top stories is the moon landing of China’s Chang’e-3 Jade Rabbit spacecraft.  In case you missed it:

There’s been a lot of hullabaloo about this, and rightly so.  The moon, after all, has felt quite lonely and this is the first time in a long while that anyone has stopped by for a visit.  Some in the West are wringing their hands wondering where they dropped the ball over the last forty years.  I even heard one commentator yesterday speculate on Sky News whether China might not land on the moon to remove the American flag.  She said it tongue-in-cheek I’m sure, but still.  With the shut down of many NASA activities due to budgetary restraints, it does beg the question: after decades of floating in orbit has the West lost its edge?

Before we all get too worked up, I say no.  Not really.  If the original space-pioneering nations posted their relationship status with space on Facebook it would be: “It’s Complicated.”

Here’s the backdrop:

I StumbledUpon this today:

94% of Americans Feel That NASA and the US Space Program Should Be Maintained: [BUT] Only 8% Think It Should Be Fully Publicly Funded

Admittedly, this was based on a sampling of 1170 Americans and carried out on-line, BEFORE the news of China’s Jade Rabbit hopping along the lunar surface.  (It rolled rather than hopped, but hopping sounds better for a rabbit.)  I think the important thing is that the sampling was taken ON-LINE.

People who have internet connectivity and spend time on their computers presumably have a more tech-friendly attitude than those who avoid computers.  That leads me to believe they would be more likely to support technological advancements, such as space exploration, than persons who do not participate in advancements like the internet.

In fact, the study shows that generally do support space exploration, but are just not willing to pay for it.  (Rather like a lot on the Internet, I would say.)

Equally interesting is a study entitled “Is Space Exploration Worth the Money?” conducted by debate.org.  This debate is still open, so you can add your own two-cents to it.  As of the time that I wrote this, the votes were 62% saying yes and 38% saying no.  (I believe this debate was sponsored by SpaceX.  Though it does not explicitly say so, it does link to a reference page about their company.)

There were a number of comments by participants in this debate, some extreme and others more moderate.

I found two comments (representing the two opposing points of view) revealed a lot about common attitudes towards space programs.

On the PRO, one anonymous contributor said:

” space exploration comes with a cost but it is very low, less [than] 1% of the U.S. Budged in 2012 and it greatly benefits the industrialized world. The Space Programs [help] to develop more efficient solar technology as well as life support, pacemakers that are controlled wirelessly, self-righting life raft, home blood pressure kits, hydraulic rescue cutters (jaws of life), mine-clearing technology (using excess rocket fuel), more durable tires, eye screenings, parachutes for small planes (credited for saving 200 lives), robotic surgery, lightweight self-contained breathing apparatus for firefighters, computers that are a lot smaller [than] they used to be, artificial heart pump[s], GPS, freeze dried food, artificial limbs, infrared ear thermometers, emergency blankets, thermodynamic icing system[s].. memory foam, better baby food, cordless vacuums, [and] improved water purification.”

Quite a list.

On the CON, one anonymous contributor said:

There are countries in poverty or on the edge of it, but space programs spend millions of dollars in training an astronaut. There are diseases that need to be cured including cancer, Huntington’s Chorea, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes. There [are] people in need of homes due to natural disasters. Families need money because a family member passed away…Why do we even need to go to Mars?

While the argument presented here in favour of space programs very much mirrors my own take on the subject, I can definitely understand the second point.

The question is: why are these two aims incompatible?  Why do members of our society assume that it has to be one or the other?  Why can’t we aspire to both?  (OK, that’s three questions, but they’re related.)

There is actually no reason we can’t have both.  Even with tight budgets in our present distressed economy governments could find the funding.  In fact, the budgets allocated to space exploration in the major economies break down as follows:

The US NASA 2013 budget “provides $17.7 billion, a decrease of 0.3 percent, or $59 million, below the 2012 enacted level,” according to the report prepared by the Whitehouse.  The 2013 National Budget is nearly $47 trillion according to the White House.  This is compared to $525.4 billion for Defence, and $76.4 billion for Health and Human Services.

The NASA budget is still the largest in the world, according to NASA themselves.   Mike Wall, in a February 12, 2013 article for Space.com, interviewed NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.  Here’s an excerpt:

“We do in fact lead the world in space exploration today,” Garver said Feb. 1 during a presentation here at a space-entrepreneurship forum organized by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research. [NASA’s Budget: What Will It Buy? (Video)]

“If you total up every other space agency on the planet today — Russia, China, Japan, all of Europe, Canada, South America — they equal three-quarters of NASA’s budget,” Garver added. “So don’t believe that America has turned its back on our civil space program.”

It’s difficult for me to crunch the comparative numbers on Defence and Health and Human Services in countries outside the US in time for this post, but it is safe to say that these other two categories still receive a larger part of the relative budgets in those nations than space exploration.

This budgetary commitment would indicate that nations DO place importance on defence and on the needs of their citizens above the need to explore outer space.  Governments are financially committed to addressing those needs even while financing space programs.  So the argument CON, though it expresses valid concerns, does not reflect the reality of the priorities of our governments.

What is more, the first argument made by the anonymous contributor in the PRO to the debate.org discussion holds water.

Space Exploration DOES yield benefit to us which have immediate impact on the ground.  The technology required for aerospace have benefited products we use everyday.  Not just TANG, as Dina Spector says in her 2012 article for Business Insider, but our cell phones, our computers, our news and entertainment; even things which directly contribute to fighting hunger, like baby formula.

Space exploration has led to advancements in very practical and essential technologies to make basic life possible; like improvements to water filtration systems, as pointed out by Mindy Townsend in her 2013 article for care2.com.

The space program also directly benefits medicine.

ESA programs contribute to the advancement of Nanotechnology, which is the next frontier in improvements to fabrication, materials, tech, and again, medicine.

Space exploration also requires important investment in education for the sciences, mathematics, and engineering, which is essential to our competitiveness and progress.

For more details on all the other good things which we get from or forays into space read this informative report by thespacefoundation.org.

I would argue, therefore, that space exploration is not at odds with other humanitarian and societal priorities, but rather facilitates them.  People focused on space are people better off in general.

I’m not trying to show off, but I had the pleasure of sitting next to Buzz Aldrin at lunch on a couple of occasions when I attended SpeedNews’ excellent conferences.  A kind and humble man, he was a pleasure to be around.  There was so much to learn from him.  I admit I was a bit of a space-groupie, and I went out of my way to find a place at his table, but it was worth it.  When it comes to space exploration, he speaks with a well-earned authority.

Every year, he would give a very moving lecture at the conference about his vision for the future of space exploration.  It was both inspirational and a bit sad.  I could tell how important this was to him, but I could feel his frustration at seeing the tide of public opinion go against his point of view.

After all, Mr. Aldrin experienced a time in America, in the world, when the space program was the superlative priority.  It is heart wrenching to see that enthusiasm we once had fizzle.

The truth is that globally we have suffered a number of setbacks since that golden age of space exploration.  It has weakened our resolve.  It has confused us.

Buzz Aldrin has higher aspirations for us, ones which will yield greater benefit than merely mining the moon.  He also has a plan which will reduce the infrastructural burden of a new space program (with its sights on Mars).  

To the argument of why we need to go to Mars, I would say that the answer is far more than George Mallory’s “because it’s there.”  This is not an Everestian ambition.  (I just made up a word.  I think I’ll keep it.)  What we can learn from the red planet, could help us improve life here on Earth.

The best thing now, for all of us, is that nations do not have to carry the burden of these programs alone.

Independent space agencies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, even bookish types like George Bezos are willing to invest.  

Mr. Bezos was recently thwarted by NASA on the use of the Complex A39 Launchpad which Bezos wanted to be open for a number of companies and NASA seems inclined to grant to SpaceX for their exclusive use.  That isn’t going to stop Bezos and his partners, though.  After all, Blue Origin has interesting motto of “Gradatim Ferociter” or “Gradually Defiant” to the rest of us.

Gradually Defiant indeed.  That is exactly what space exploration needs.  A persistent, growing, defiance of current misconceptions about the purpose and goal of our ventures into space.  (By the way, fellow Aviation/Aerospace colleagues, Blue Origin is hiring.  See the website for details.)  They definitely do not seem ready to quit.  Neither should we.

Space isn’t just for scientists.  It never has been.  It was always a field for dreamers, and there are plenty of dreamers.

Many of these see a possibility to make space, at least a proximity to space, more accessible to those of us who would not qualify for a seat at the space station.

Priestmangoode has won a well-deserved design award for the beautiful capsule design they developed for the World View® experience with Paragon Space Corporation.

OK.  It consists of rising in a balloon to the upper atmosphere at 100,000 ft and then floating back down again gently on a parachute.  But that’s the beauty of it!  No need to withstand the G-Forces of being propelled off the earth on a rocket.  No need to worry about burning up on reentry, and you get an incomparable view.  Plus, it won’t be all that expensive.  Sure, the $75,000 reservation would pulverise my budget, but it’s affordable to many of those who would seek a unique luxury travel experience they could boast about to their friends.  Just look how pretty it will be!

The ever-inspirational and aspirational Sir Richard Branson also offers us a taste of space with his Virgin Galactic Project.

The availability of tourist-space travel experiences like these should keep us thinking of leaving the surface of Earth and having a peek at the infinity out there just waiting for us.

As to whether the space program is financially viable, I will leave you with a quote from George Bush.  Yes.  George Bush.  He said, specifically of the Apollo program, that it was “the best return on investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought himself a sketchpad” (Quoted from a 1989 article by David L. Chandler and referenced on nss.org).  Sure.  He cancelled the shuttle program, but he can’t take the words back.  They’re out there.  He said them.  The nss.org article also includes this interesting figure: “every $1 spent on basic research in space today will generate $40 worth of economic growth on Earth.”  That is an impressive return on investment.

In the end, though, they say there’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to fight complacency.  Whether or not there is any direct benefit to humanity as a whole in China’s moon program, even if you argue that investment in alternative space programs might be more beneficial, at least it’s giving everyone a reason to think about these very important programs again.

When I lived in Miami, I never missed a Star Hustler program on PBS hosted by the incomparable Jack Horkheimer of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium.  He always ended with a knowing playful smile and the words, “Keep Looking Up!”

Perhaps we needed a rabbit to lead us down the rabbit hole again, and encourage us all to go to a land of dreams and wonder only to be found in the outer reaches of darkness above us.  To paraphrase the rabbit: we’re late, we’re late, for a very important date!  Yeah.  Let’s go.  Let’s get our acts together and get back out there.

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