Why Continue to Fund Space Research?
In these tough economic times, we need to look at the many superfluous programs that our State and Federal Tax dollars are being spent on. I increasingly hear people wonder why we’re funding the Space program. “Shut NASA Down, We’ll save Billions”, I’ve heard it a hundred, if not a thousand times. Sounds reasonable to me.
In support of our Space program, I could give a lengthy list of all the things, products, and technologies that come directly as a benefit from Space research.* (For a full description. please go here: http://www.thespaceplace.com/nasa/spinoffs.html) However, aside from all of these wonderful gizmo’s, there is one real answer:
Our survival as a species depends on it.
On Monday afternoon, an asteroid (named 2009 DD45) passed dangerously close to the earth. At 40,000 miles out, it passed at less than twice the distance of most of our satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which is approx. 26,200 miles above the Earth. It was estimated to be the same size as the asteroid that exploded over Siberia in 1908 and leveled more than 800 square milesof forest. Had 2009 DD45 slammed down onto the Earth, it would have exploded with the force of a large nuclear blast somewhere in the Pacific Ocean west of Tahiti.
Most surprising of all is that we only had 2 days notice… 2009 DD45 was spotted last Saturday by astronomers in Australia, and verified by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre (MPC), which catalogues solar system rocks. Not to add any alarm, but 2009 DD45 will get another chance at hitting us… Astronomers said the asteroid is likely to return for another series of near misses since it’s drawn in by our planet’s gravity.
This ‘Near-Miss’ is by no means an isolated occurrence. Peter Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, said the last rock “as large or larger than this to come this close was in 1973 and the next time will be in 2029 when Apophis makes its close approach.”
Apophis initially caused some concern among scientists when its plotted course revealed it to be on a collision trajectory with Earth, but further investigations have since shown it will pass harmlessly by. You can find the wiki here.
Two days’ notice… that’s all. I don’t expect vacations on Mars, but I personally would like a little more notice before our world (or at least a sizable portion of it) is wiped out.
In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking gives his reasoning for believing that advanced civilizations could only exist on the fringes of any galaxy. To paraphrase, trying to establish civilization in a more densely populated region of space would be nearly impossible, since those planets would be much more susceptible to being routinely extinguished due to galactic activity, such as radiation from supernovas. I believe that space debris i.e., asteroids, would fall into that same category. We already know what happens when our planet is hit by a large object… it’s happened before. Also, the effect of gravity is always attractive, so I believe that, as these asteroids pass by, they will inevitably get drawn closer, as there’s no force to push them further out away from Earth, and into Space.
Does this sound like a worth while application of our tax dollars? I believe that it is.
Most impacts are in rural, uninhabited areas. As our population grows, the chances if an asteroid hit in a large populated area increase.
For details on the Siberia 1908 incident, here’s a great reconstruction from eyewitness accounts. Remember, this exploded in the atmosphere… it didn’t even ‘hit’ the ground…
* btw, here’s a ‘short’ list of those ‘benefits’ that came directly from the space program: Advanced keyboards, Customer Service Software, Database Management System, Laser Surveying, Aircraft controls, Lightweight Compact Disc, Expert System Software, Microcomputers, Design Graphics, the Dustbuster, shock-absorbing helmets, home security systems, smoke detectors, flat panel televisions, high-density batteries, trash compactors, food packaging and freeze-dried technology, cool sportswear, sports bras, hair styling appliances, fogless ski goggles, self-adjusting sunglasses, composite golf clubs, hang gliders, art preservation, quartz crystal timing equipment, whale identification methods, environmental analysis, noise abatement, pollution measuring devices, pollution control devices, smokestack monitors, radioactive leak detectors, earthquake prediction systems, sewage treatment, energy saving air conditioning, air purification equipment, Arteriosclerosis detection, ultrasound scanners, automatic insulin pumps, portable x-ray devices, invisible braces, dental arch wire, palate surgery technology, clean room apparel, implantable heart aid, MRI, bone analyzers, cataract surgery tools, gasoline vapor recovery, self-locking fasteners, machine tool software, laser wire strippers, lubricant coating process, wireless communications, engine coatings, improved engine designs, storm warning services (Doppler radar), firefighters’ radios, lead poison detection, fire detectors, flame detectors, corrosion protection coatings, protective clothing, robotic hands, safer bridges, emission testing, airline wheelchairs, electric cars, auto design, methane-powered vehicles, windshear prediction, and aircraft design analysis, to name a few. I think the prospect of improving on those ideas and technologies is worth funding, don’t you?