Ever since I was a child, the idea of space exploration has captivated me. Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in the 1980s and seeing flights of the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger.
I was too young to take in all the details of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union speech, but I remember being excited at his announcement of plans for an orbiting station in space. A whole generation born before the moon landing felt a spark of the imagination and wonder at the possibilities of the future.
It was this inspiration that led many in my generation to pursue studies in science and engineering. Many of us had dreams of taking a ride to space on a shuttle, and if we could not become astronauts like some of our heroes, then maybe we could play a role in the innovations and achievements that drove space exploration.
Today, space exploration is not as prominent in the imaginations of America’s youth as it once was. Whatever NASA or private research endeavors are accomplishing these days hardly ever makes the front page of our consciousness. Space exploration has lost much of its widespread interest and for many Americans has become a special interest for astronomers and physicists.
This is ironic considering all the “Space Age” technology people enjoy (and largely take for granted) today because of spin-off technology from space exploration. These advances have touched almost every area of our lives.
We’re healthier because of improvements in food storage and safety developed for space travel. We’re living longer thanks to medical spin-off technologies such as heart assisting devices and sturdy, lightweight prosthetics.
We’re able to work more efficiently thanks to communication and computer systems advanced through the space missions. It’s difficult to imagine cell phones, for example, as they are today without a space program.
The green energy movement in particular owes much thanks to technologies derived from space programs: energy efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs), infrared thermometers, chemical detection systems, water purification systems, solar cells, and products that clean petroleum-based products from water.
When we encounter space exploration as a topic of discussion, it’s too often in the context of political pandering to win elections. With the Florida primary looming, Republican candidates demonstrated this practice well in the last debate, but we’ll see both parties make this predicable move for Florida votes in the general election.
When space exploration becomes political, it limits the discussion to the expense to taxpayers and national security. Private sector growth, advancement of practical science and technological innovation take a back seat.
In general, I’m opposed to subsidizing space programs. If space exploration is worthwhile, entrepreneurs and other enterprising capitalists will pursue it without the need for government incentives. (But perhaps there is also something to be said for the arguments from many of my fellow science enthusiasts: It’s better than what they spend a lot of our money on.)
This is not to say that the government has no role to play. It has a mandate to protect the security of American citizens. Other nations—with interests directly opposed to our own—are determined to establish a presence in space, and having enemies with the strategic advantage directly over our heads should cause concern.
When it comes to taxpayer dollars, space exploration is a hard sell for Americans who look around the country and see hard economic times. They argue that the money should be spent at home. However, if Americans wait for perfect conditions on the ground before they are willing to spend money in space, then it could be a long time before NASA gets around to another groundbreaking mission.
While these political discussions are important, they’re hardly inspirational.
If the private sector gets the attention it deserves when it comes to space exploration and technological developments for that purpose, many of these political discussions, however relevant, would not seem like the only conversations we’d have.
If America neglects space exploration, it does so at its own peril. National security and economic issues aside, I’d like to see America excited about space again, the way it was when I was young. These difficult times require a new generation inspired and motivated to reach for distant stars simply because they can.