The Morality of Space Exploration

Imagine sitting next to Thomas Edison as he is creating the light bulb, and all of a sudden, someone walks in and says, “Tom, would you put that away! There are real problems we need to deal with. You shouldn’t be wasting time making a fancy candle.” You would probably think, “Wow, this person is so backwards. If they only knew how important this is and how much good will come from this.” In fact, I know you would think this, because we all do all the time. After all, how many inspirational Hollywood movies focus on a dreamer who has to overcome all the naysayers and then create something amazing? But for all we do to celebrate the forward thinkers of the past, so many still refuse to see the importance of investing in scientific advancement.

I spent the past three days with NASA as a social media contact for the Antares Rocket launch in Wallops, VA. Before going, I told people they could send me questions I could ask the scientists and other representatives I’d be meeting with. I got some really interesting ones here and on Facebook. One person asked “Do they think they have the moral right to spend such enormous sums on space technology when there are such urgent needs here on the earth?”

My initial reaction was dismissive. I thought, “I’m not going to waste these people’s time by asking such an asinine question,” but then I realized that this kind of attitude of discouraging scientific progress, whether coming from a false sense of moral superiority or just a general shortsightedness, was a much too widely held attitude, and with the explosion at the launch, naysayers will have one more thing to point to as to why funding should stop. 

The youth of America are often accused of always needing instant gratification, however I have come to think that is much more of a universal human trait as I see many older individuals being the greatest critics of the space program because they don’t see the payoff IMMEDIATELY. But it is there and it’s huge. 

Now, I’d like to tell you about my time with NASA over the past few days. 

The Antares Rocket, which was built by Orbital Science, and contained a variety of supplies and scientific experiments that are needed on the International Space Station. The ISS itself is a marvel, and even though it can be thought of as routine, it is anything but that. The ability to keep six people in space for months at a time is a key stepping-stone to developing the technology for a manned mission to Mars, and build permanent outposts in space. The amount of time and manpower going into this is remarkable. But equally so, is what is coming out of this push to move farther into space exploration. 

Much of the scientific equipment being sent up is medical. Spending long amounts of time in space creates unique medical problems, and people need to figure out answers. One of the issues faced is how blood flow goes from the heart to the brain. “A human health study called Drain Brain will inform understandings of blood flow in space to possibly aid in the treatment of headaches and other neurological systems reported by crew members living on the space station. The special neck collar used to measure blood flow from the brain for the Drain Brain study …does not require surgery or special knowledge to operate. This could make the collar a useful tool for monitoring patients on Earth who have heart or brain disorders. Drain Brain could also have implications for development of screening mechanisms for cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.” (Taken from Orbital CRS-3 Mission Overview) Other equipment being sent up could have similar outcomes, in that they answer problems both in space and at home. 

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) research is vital to answering many very real problems we face in the world, but with American students falling further and further behind in the these areas , it is unlikely we will be able to compete in solving them on a global scale. Is this because American students are stupid? No. They simply need more opportunities, and NASA is working hard to provide them. 

The Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, part of National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, was sending up experiments from students all across the country that would help find answers to problems in long term space flight, from air filtration to calcium deficiencies. 

I was able to attend the conference where several teams of students  presented what they would be sending up on Antares. I was amazed by how elegant some of their ideas were. Addressing the formerly mentioned issue of air filtration, one team discovered that living chrysanthemums, could help filter out some of the chemicals in the air. They were sending up a small tube containing seeds to test whether or not they could grow in a zero gravity environment. 

Afterwards, I spoke with some of the students. I was particularly moved by one group of middle school girls who were studying muscle loss in a certain type of shrimp that has similar muscle makeup to humans. They were so excited about this opportunity. One told me, “This has been the most amazing experience. I didn’t know I was smart. I had no idea I could do something like this. I didn’t even think I liked math and science.” Another piped in, “Yeah, I feel like this is really teaching a man to fish. We have learned how to problem solve. This was so hard, but I would do it all over again.” 

Programs like these are helping the youth of America discover their own potential. And this isn’t just inspirational – it is essential. I spoke with NCESSE’s director Dr. Jeff Goldstein on Monday at the conference about this. “There are a myriad of problems here on earth, but many of those problems are going to be solved through science and technology. We are going to need a next generation of scientists and engineers to address many of these problems here on earth. We have got to inspire the next generation, or we will have no one to solve those problems.”

A group of students as they presented to us their project nicknamed "Blood Suckers."

A group of students as they presented to us their project nicknamed “Blood Suckers.”

As I mentioned earlier, American students are falling behind in the world in math and science. This means, in the global job market, our children will not be competitive. “If we are going to compete in a high tech, 21st century market, we’ve got to bring innovative products to market that come from science and technology fields,” says Dr. Goldstein. “The need to compete, to maintain our standard of living, critically depends on getting the next generation involved in STEM fields.” If this weekend is any indicator, that is exactly what they are doing. Many of the students, even ones who had grown up around science, had no interest in pursuing it, until this program came along and showed them their own potential.

(I’d like to take a moment to note that, after speaking to their director, the experiment lost should hopefully be able to be built again and sent up on a later flight.)

It’s not just a distant day in the future we would start seeing benefits. There are immediate benefits from pushing forward with space exploration. On Sunday, while we were touring the launch pad, the facilities director told us, “These contracts have been a shot in the arm to the local economy.”

What is a problem Americans are facing right now? Unemployment. Investing in and growing the space industry can help create a stronger economy. If just these contracts have helped the local economy so much, imagine if, on a country-wide scale, this industry could grow to be as big as some of our other manufacturing industries. We could see a major change in our economy. 

Of course, that is not to say there will be no failures. As we saw on Tuesday, accidents happen. But going into the frontier was never supposed to be easy. It never has been. It wasn’t easy for our ancestors who did it here on earth, and we cannot expect anything different for our own generation. I spoke Dr. Goldstein after Tuesday’s briefing again and he remarked, “Failures are simply the signposts on the road to success.” To use an even older phrase, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

So, to the initial question of morality, my response would be that it would be morally irresponsible NOT to invest in the space program. We cannot abandon our future for the sake of immediate gratification. We have a responsibility to push ourselves to explore, innovate, and create, because through this, we will secure a better world for the next generations.