NASA: A Case for Curiosity-Based Research

Of all the institutions of the United States government, NASA may be the one that instills the greatest sense of patriotism in the average citizen. NASA was the organization that sent human beings to the moon, and Earth’s probes to Mars, Saturn, and soon past the edge of our solar system. NASA also built and launched space telescopes like Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer, which are capable of seeing distant galaxies and nebulae with previously unimaginable detail, and designed a spacecraft capable of reuse that has been in service for nearly 30 years [1]. Today, NASA is once again a major news story, not for another huge step forward in the study of our universe, but for the end of the Space Shuttle program and the cancellation of the high-profile Constellation project, which planned to bring humans back to the moon and eventually Mars [2]. Such a move indicates that despite the fact that NASA’s funding will actually increase over the next several years [3], the American government and public are beginning to question why exactly we spend such a large amount of money sending people across vast stretches of space. This is not an issue that is isolated to NASA. There are many labs across the world that conduct research not for monetary gain but for a further understanding of the universe. While this is considered a noble goal in the scientific community, the general public may question the wisdom of investing so much time and money into efforts that may never provide practical returns. This is the reason that in this year’s budget, the 17.68 billion dollar question is: why conduct science for the sake of science?

In the previous paragraph I made a claim that we spend a large amount of money on NASA, and while this is true in that the 2011 budget for NASA consists of an investment on the order of 1010 dollars, strictly speaking, the actual slice of the budget pie that NASA receives is quite low. When numbers reach into the billions and trillions, it becomes very difficult to conceptualize the magnitude of spending. One way to look at it is this: if the national budget were 1000 dollars, NASA would receive about 5 dollars. This is around 15 times less than is being spent on interest from the national debt and over 40 times less than is being spent on defense or Social Security. This is not to discredit these very large important programs, so much as it is to highlight that NASA contributes to a little bit less than one half of one percent of the total national budget in 2011 [3,4]. Even so, is even this small an amount of the budget appropriate for an organization concerned primarily with matters beyond this world? Looking at real-world applications of NASA technology and the benefits of other curiosity-based research may help shed light on this question.

In the process of engineering vehicles that are meant to send astronauts and satellites safely to space, NASA has developed many new technologies, which have ended up in a diverse group of fields. For instance, the life rafts that Apollo astronauts sat in after splashdown in the ocean have been appropriated for use on many other boats due to their resistance to capsizing even in rough seas. In the field of medicine, microgravity bioreactors developed by NASA are being licensed to quickly grow cells three-dimensionally as opposed to in Petri dishes, an important step in accurately recreating cells as they appear in the human body. NASA has also funded and developed many advances in solar power technology, helping to create more efficient solar cells (unsurprising, considering the main energy source of many of NASA’s satellites and probes). These are just three examples of projects in which NASA has had a huge hand, and others include military robots based on lunar rover technology, heat-conductive pipes that allow portable electronics to stay cool, and the development of materials used in everything from architecture to prosthetic limbs [5]. When you realize that much of this technology is available today because of curiosity about what lies beyond the Earth, the strengths of curiosity-based research become more readily apparent. At the same time, the expected outcomes of research for scientists and the people who fund them may still differ.

The Orion Crew Vehicle

A prime example of this discrepancy of expectations is the aforementioned Constellation project. It proposed the design and construction of Ares I, IV, and V rockets, of roughly the same size as the Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo missions. These rockets also incorporated solid booster technology from the Space Shuttle program. The second piece of the program involved the development of the Orion crew vehicle, a capsule similar to the one that astronauts used for moon orbit and Earth reentry. Scientifically, the project was meant to be a proof of concept and eventual means of visiting the Moon and Mars, with potential later on for a colony on one of these foreign bodies [2]. A much closer-to-home function of the project was to serve as a basis for jobs and income, especially in the state of Alabama, where NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is located. It is no coincidence that one of the most outspoken opponents of the proposed cut of Constellation is Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby. Other critics include more congressmen from Alabama, as well as those representing Florida and Texas, where other NASA centers are located [6]. Though these men eulogize on the future of spaceflight, at the center of their protests is something much more pragmatic: their constituents’ need for jobs. This very practical reasoning somehow brings us back to curiosity-based research.

People may wonder why it is that any government funds organizations that seek nothing more than learning more about the universe in which we live. On the surface, this is reasonable. Surely taxpayer dollars could be better spent on programs that will actually help those in need. What is often not realized is the true contributions to society such research can provide. NASA, over the course of just over 50 years, has created thousands of jobs, developed technologies that can change millions of lives, while at the same time contributing immensely to human understanding of the cosmos. Even if the average person doesn’t care too much about the composition of the universe or the most recently discovered exoplanet, tools developed from curiosity-based research continue to benefit us right here on Earth.

References
1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “NASA Science: Missions.” NASA, http://nasascience.nasa.gov/missions.
2. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Constellation.” NASA http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/constellation/main/.
3. The Office of Management and Budget. “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Budget.” OMB, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2011/assets/nasa.pdf.
4. Office of Management and Budget. “Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2011.” OMB, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Overview/.
5. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Innovative Partnerships Program.” NASA, http://www.sti.nasa.gov/spinoff/database.
6. The Huntsville Times. “Alabama lawmakers oppose shutdown.” Sean Reilly, http://www.al.com/news/huntsvilletimes/local.ssf?/base/news/1265105713324480.xml&coll=1