by A. Lin, Los Altos
Launching rockets with multi-million-dollar satellites on top from Florida’s beautiful Space Coast. Sending space probes to the moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and beyond. Landing rovers on the red planet to seek signs of ancient microbial life. Performing priceless scientific research in microgravity aboard the International Space Station. These are all leaves and branches that grow from the expansive trees of “space exploration” and “spaceflight.” Space exploration and spaceflight offer a wealth of benefits to us humans; however, as much as it is awe-inspiring to build a Mars colony, one problem of daring such mighty endeavors is that of cost. Therefore, we have the question of whether or not we should invest more of our resources—especially tax money—into space exploration. Should we? Yes, we should; investing more of our tax money in space exploration will advance humanity in the long run due to the countless benefits that space exploration provides, including buttressing our very limited knowledge of the cosmos.
Firstly, the technology used in space exploration can greatly benefit our daily civilian lives. Many technologies developed for space exploration are already commonplace. For example, according to an article published by the Canadian Space Agency, “[the] technology behind our tiny cell phone cameras was developed in an effort to miniaturize cameras for spacecraft.” In addition, experimental ethylene scrubbers used to purify the atmosphere on the International Space Station are now commonplace in household air purifiers—another piece of technology that we can thank space exploration for. It’s not just the technologies that are useful to our daily lives: Many essential services we use on a daily basis are brought to us from space. One such example would be the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites: According to a promotional video played on a SpaceX launch webcast in May of 2021, the latest generation of American GPS III satellites services more than four billion people—roughly fifty-one percent of Earth’s population—helping us with navigation around our planet. This “space-based radio navigation system,” as described in a recent NASA article, can “pinpoint a three dimensional position [on Earth] to meter-level accuracy and time to the ten-nanosecond level, worldwide and 24/7.” Furthermore, satellites also allow us to communicate with each other—that is, through satellite-based internet. SpaceX’s Starlink, Bharti Enterprises’s OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are all racing to roll out satellite constellations in an effort to connect more of our globe to the internet, with a focus on low- to medium-density areas where cable or traditional infrastructure would not be possible or practical. We can also better predict crop yields as well as weather patterns using satellite-based technology in order to use our farmland more efficiently. Lastly, a multitude of jobs are created within the aerospace industry: research and development, engineering, software development, and hardware manufacturing, to name a few. Those without a STEM background don’t need to fret: There are also a large number of job positions such as human resources, marketing, and communications that are also involved in the aerospace field. There are even tailors who work at SpaceX to manufacture the custom-made intervehicular activity (IVA) suits for every crew member who flies aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft. These positions can fit people from all sorts of different backgrounds, creating an opportunity for people of all ages, experiences, and fields to get involved with the aerospace industry. We should therefore consider investing more of our tax money in space exploration to advance our future lives instead of squandering it on other non-beneficial services and activities.
Space is still so new to us humans that we still are unclear about what resources space can give us or the dangers we may avoid if we don’t continue exploring space; thus, we should spend more of our tax money towards exploring space and making space more accessible for our future generations. For example, the 2021 launch of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft marks the beginning of a twelve-year primary mission to visit the Trojan Asteroids at Jupiter’s L4 and L5 lagrange points. These asteroids have never been visited before—ever—yet they are “time capsules” that contain valuable scientific information from the earliest stages of our solar system. The scientific data gathered from this mission can help investigators worldwide better understand the early building blocks of our solar system and how the solar system formed. These asteroids that Lucy is targeting can serve as deep space refueling and habitation outposts for missions beyond the inner solar system. However, this mission comes at a great cost of $981 million USD, a fraction of which goes to United Launch Alliance, the launch provider for this mission. While the cost-to-kilogram ratio of orbital launch vehicles has been steadily decreasing since the dawn of spaceflight—and is now the lowest it has ever been—it may still be too expensive for even the average business person to afford. SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket, with a maximum payload capacity of 22,800 kilograms to low Earth orbit, has a cost of $2,720 per kilogram of payload. To increase the access of space, we can put more of our money towards the research and development sector of space exploration; thus, we need to keep lowering the cost to take payloads to low Earth orbit. SpaceX’s next rocket, Starship, with an ultimate launch cost of $2,000,000 and a maximum payload capacity of 220,000 kilograms, will only cost about $9.10 per kilogram of payload sent to orbit–a significant reduction from the already inexpensive Falcon family of launch vehicles. The human spaceflight sector of space exploration is also a vast area of uncharted territory: As of November 2021, with the launch of SpaceX Crew-3, only 601 people from 37 countries have been in space; only 12 of whom have stepped foot on the moon, a celestial body just three days away from Earth. Unfortunately, we haven’t been back to the moon for half of a century—something that we may look to improve in the future. By increasing the number of people who can go to space, we can perform more critical science that can help us advance humanity’s progress in space exploration. Exploring space can help us open the door to regions beyond the world that we have been confined to since the beginning of humankind.
Although space exploration has many benefits to our earthly lives, we certainly can’t ignore its drawbacks. It is plausible to believe that there will be many negative consequences of space exploration as we start launching rockets more frequently, such as air, space, and noise pollution; increased risk of accessing space due to increased space debris; and the risk of long-term human spaceflight as we expand further into our solar system. As for the first of these potential consequences, many pollutants are released into the atmosphere with a single rocket launch. According to an article from Everyday Astronaut, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, for example, relies on the combustion of kerosene and liquid oxygen to carry its payload into orbit; the chemical reaction of the two propellants releases “CO2, water vapor, NOx, carbon soot, [and] carbon monoxide” into the atmosphere with every launch. However, newer launch vehicles like SpaceX’s Starship, the central core of NASA’s Space Launch System, and Blue Origin’s upcoming Vulcan rocket will all burn cleaner propellants–methalox, otherwise known as methane and liquid oxygen; and hydrolox, the aerospace term for hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The combustion of these two propellant types releases mostly water vapor, which doesn’t put as many pollutants, including greenhouse gases, into our atmosphere as carbon-based soot does. As for the increased risk of space pollution, let’s take a look at SpaceX’s Starlink satellites as an example: SpaceX currently operates 1429 Starlink satellites, with an ultimate goal of about 4200 satellites in Low Earth Orbit. Since these satellites are placed strategically in a circular orbit of about 550 kilometers above Earth’s surface, the satellites “are expected to [burn up in the atmosphere] within five years without propulsion” due to orbital decay, keeping the space above our planet clean. Even if there is a risk of collision, the satellites have onboard krypton-powered hall-effect thrusters to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers. In addition, there are a multitude of problems here on Earth that we may want to focus more on before setting our sights to the stars; however, space-based technologies can assist these aforementioned problems that occur here on Earth.
Space exploration is leading us into the future with the wealth of benefits and new discoveries that it brings us on a daily basis. These benefits are helping us streamline and enhance our daily lives, and the new discoveries that we make in the space above our pale blue dot can help us become a multiplanetary species, preventing human extinction should our planet experience a planet-wide disaster. As the sun rises on the commercial space race, it’s plausible to think that the space industry will only grow going onwards. We can do something to advance this growth. Get involved with the aerospace field. Go pursue the path of aerospace in whatever branch that interests you—hardware, software, manufacturing, engineering, and research and development, just to name a few. Even if one is performing tasks as simple as running a NASA TV broadcast, one is still contributing greatly to making space better for all of us. The future and advancement of space is in our hands. Let’s work together to make it better and more accessible to all.