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Column: Is space exploration worth the money?

Might the money spent on space exploration by governments and scientific institutes be better used for “real world” problems? Conor Farrell takes a look.

Conor Farrell

IN THIS AGE of global austerity we’re all taking a bit more care when we spend our money, but we’re also probably more aware of the money spent by governments and scientific institutes around the world and wonder if it could be spent in a better manner to help with “real world” problems.

Space science and astronomy is no exception to this, and a lot of money is spent researching and developing telescopes and spacecraft – would the billions of euro spent to run the International Space Station not be better used to alleviate world hunger, for example?

First of all, I think that the idea that we should only spend money on issues that are immediately urgent is a very linear way to progress as a civilisation: if we were to address things in this manner all the time, we would always find something else more worthy of expenditure, and never really solve anything properly. We’re (arguably) an intelligent species, so surely we can tackle more than one issue at a time?

Spin-off benefits

When we look at space missions, it’s very easy to think that the only goal and result is to simply get something into space, and that’s the end of it. We don’t often think of the spin-off benefits that space exploration and astronomy give us, even though we depend on them all the time. Indeed, access to space itself was largely the result of the research and development of ballistic rockets during World War II, and modern communications such as the internet and TV have grown to what they are now thanks to satellites in space.

If you watch the skies a lot, you may sometimes spot a very bright satellite suddenly appear then fade out as it moves through the sky. These are Iridium satellites, developed by Motorola, that provide coverage to satellite phones and pagers all over the world.

Another benefit of space exploration is that we can monitor our own planet from a distance. The European Space Agency’s Earth Observation missions provide crucial and real-time information about flooding, bush fires, volcanic activity, drought, and health of crops. Without these “eyes in the sky” it would be extremely difficult to watch these important things, especially in times of emergency.

Spacecraft and astronomical equipment

Even the development of spacecraft and astronomical equipment has delivered lots of spin-off technology. You know those shiny bags that hikers and campers put in first aid kits to keep someone warm in an emergency? Those space blankets were first developed in 1964 by NASA for use in spacecraft. The material is resistant to big temperature changes and helps to keep gases trapped in one place, which is useful when working in the vacuum of space. That shiny sheet in a first aid kit is similar to the stuff used on the Apollo moon landers that gave them their reflective gold colour.

Feeding an astronaut in space is much more difficult than eating on Earth. As well as crumbs floating about and getting stuck in equipment, it’s also tricky to keep food and surfaces completely bacteria-free (you can’t nip down to the shop to get some kitchen wipes, or pay a visit to the doctor if you get food poisoning, when you’re 300km above the Earth’s surface for months on end). NASA employed the Pillsbury Company to tackle these problems, and the company developed the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point concept. This is more commonly known as HACCP, and is a standard in food safety used all over the world in restaurants, delis, and food preparation factories.

Digital mammography is a technique used by some medical centres for breast cancer screening. Instead of using more hazardous x-rays to inspect the breasts, this technique captures electrical signals from the tissue and uses computers to build up a much more versatile image for the doctors. The technology used in digital mammography was first developed for use in the Hubble Space Telescope.

Space science is relatively inexpensive

In 2013, the entire budget of the European Space Agency was almost €4.3 billion, to which Ireland contributed just over €17 million. This might seem like a lot of money to you and me, but it’s just a drop in the ocean when we think in terms of national budgets and bank bailouts, and a mere fraction of the money set aside for things like war (Ireland’s military expenditure in 2012 was over about €840 million, and about €1.2 trillion for the entire world). Space science is actually rather inexpensive.

Next month the man responsible for the design and construction of the detector that found the famous Higgs Boson in 2012 in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will give a talk for Astronomy Ireland in Dublin. This experiment has a budget of about €7.5 billion, the most expensive scientific experiment ever undertaken. But even aside from the physics results the LHC and CERN will give, the technology and research in the construction of the facility has helped us to develop better particle accelerators to be used in medicine, particularly in treating cancer. In fact, the World Wide Web – thanks to which you are reading this article now – was invented at CERN in 1990 to aid for communications between scientists working there.

I think it’s very good to ask ourselves if we should be spending money on space exploration. Do I feel more money should be spent on a global level to sort out the world’s societal problems? Absolutely, I do. Do I believe space exploration and astronomy funding should be cut to do that? No way. As we’ve seen, space science is very low cost when compared to other expenses, and even for that “small” amount of money, we get a lot of return and benefits that directly help the progress of society and humanity as a whole.

Technology for everyone

If we were to take Europe’s space exploration budget and use it to feed starving children around the world, yes it would certainly help, but it would not fix the problem for good. We’d also be left with no way to effectively monitor crop production or natural disasters that would be vital to the survival of those disadvantaged people. On the contrary, if we were to increase expenditure in space science (and science in general) I have no doubt that the rewards to humanity would be vast.

Astronomy and space science are there largely for research purposes, but we must give credit to the fact that they are cutting edge fields and always demand new technology be developed – providing research and employment opportunities – which in turn can be used by everyday people like you and me, for our own benefit and to help others around the world who aren’t as lucky as we are.

Conor Farrell is an avid science enthusiast and studied physics with astronomy at Dublin City University. He now works with Astronomy Ireland to promote all things space-related to a wider audience. In his spare time he writes about science and current affairs, and can be followed on Twitter at @conorsthoughts. Read more of Conor’s columns here.

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