Letter to the Editor – a brief case for space

4 Oct

Curiosity Rover on Mars

Curiosity Rover on Mars

On October 1, 2013 the National Post ran an editorial by Jesse Kline titled “What happens if they shut down the government and no one cares?

It was an interesting article, except for one line that says spending money on NASA (and Mars specifically) is “wasted”. Naturally I responded.

The National Post did not run my letter, I suspect, because they don’t particularly care about NASA funding one way or the other.

It also seems that no one else picked up on that NASA funding line in the story either, based on a scroll through of all the comments that followed it.

Conveniently I have a blog and can run my own letter, which follows below.

This is a brief case for space.


Re: “Jesse Kline: What happens if they shut down the government and no one cares?”

Mr. Kline wrote on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 a compelling article about the various government services that will and will not be impacted by the US Government shutdown and whether American citizens will be bothered by this.

And while I do agree in large measure with Mr. Kline’s arguments – in particular the view that the US Government has become far too large – there is one line that I cannot disagree with more strongly. The line shows that Mr. Kline fails to understand the impact that space science and exploration has on our lives every day:

“Due to the gov’t shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice,” read a tweet sent by the U.S. space agency. Can the world survive without fresh pictures of space popping up on Twitter feeds, or government programs that waste millions of dollars sending robots to Mars? We’re about to find out.

The answer is simply “no”.

The quality of life that many people – including apparently Mr. Kline – take for granted is based on technology developed for or by NASA (and other space agencies) over the past 60 years.

Indeed, the number of ways that space technology touches our lives every day is a number too big to count. And I’m not talking about the obvious examples such as small computers and GPS/communication/weather/Earth-observation satellites (many of which Mr. Kline probably used to file and distribute this story).

I’m talking about the less obvious examples, but still traceable directly to the space program: scratch resistant lenses and UV protection in glasses which NASA developed in the 60s for the visors in spacesuit helmets; athletic shoe insoles which were developed to assist astronauts walking on the Moon; the prevalence of cordless tools, again thanks to Moon walks; your underwear – or any underwear that “whisks” away moisture – is derived from astronaut clothing; water filtration and recycling systems that are used in disaster areas and developing countries to provide safe drinking water were designed for spacecraft with limited water available; cell phone cameras are the result of NASA requiring small, lightweight, hi-resolution cameras for probes; panoramic photo-stitching software on your phone or PC is the direct result of the “wasted millions” on rovers headed for Mars; the Canadarm robotic arm which has been transformed into a medical tool used to perform delicate surgery and save lives; and finally body temperature thermometers that go in your ear, rather than your mouth – or somewhere even worse. Plus many, many more.

Though the last example – thermometers – is perhaps the most illustrative example of how space research impacts life here on Earth. The scientists who developed the technology didn’t care about measuring anyone’s body temperature. Rather, they were working on a way to detect the surface temperature of distant stars using infrared light. Once the technology was developed though, it occurred to other scientists that the technology could be adapted to other applications – such as thermometers that go into our ears and measure our body temperature in a few seconds.

Above and beyond the direct application of new technologies, there is the economic benefit of investing in space – keeping in mind that space agencies are not funded well. In the US, NASA’s entire annual budget accounts for about 0.6% of the federal budget. In Canada, the Canadian Space Agency accounts for less than 0.2% of our federal budget. Nevertheless, there are entire industries – employing thousands of private sector skilled workers – based on the innovation that results from investment in space.

The end result is a clear picture showing how much benefit humanity derives from such a small investment in space agencies. And it might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s important to remember that the best way to improve life down here on Earth is through investment up there in space.

Regards,

Harrison Ruess,
Toronto, Ontario
Twitter: @ZamboniPilot

Canadarm being used to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990

Canadarm being used to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990

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