In Defense of the Final Frontier

A friend pointed out to me an article by a Luddite, who derides the recent SpaceX launch as frippery, Elon Musk as a modern-day Louis XVI, and the entire idea of space exploration as something humanity shouldn’t be allowed to play with until we clean up our room.

After some consideration, I’m not going to link to the article.  I’m sure you can find it if you go looking.  I disagree with the author completely.

His main point is that since the space program hasn’t ended war, poverty, or famine, it’s worthless.

The 1969 moon landing didn’t end the Vietnam War.  That’s true. Also true is that space programs like the International Space Station (ISS) foster cooperation between governments, helping to build mutual understanding as a result of international cooperation among nations. So far, more than 63 nations have worked together on the ISS. That kind of visible, public teamwork among potentially rival nations may not end the current wars, but can help prevent the next one.

Investment in the Apollo Moon exploration program in the 1960s also correlates with the level of technical education later attained by students, suggesting that the program’s high public profile positively influenced the level of US technical education. Having a visible space exploration program encourages young people to pursue STEM fields. So far, more than 43 million students from 49 countries have participated in experiments and activities associated with the ISS – building a generation of scientists and engineers who could help with the world hunger problems the author describes.

The assertion that “nothing of substantial worth was gifted to humanity as a result” of the space program is patently false. Even aside from the intangible truth that new knowledge has inherent value to humankind, there are thousands of examples of terrestrial benefits of the space program.

Healthcare is a great place to start.  Do you worry about osteoporosis? Prolia, a prescription drug to treat it, was developed in space. How about laser eye surgery? The technology now commonly used to track a patient’s eye and precisely direct the laser scalpel came from the space program.

Have an inoperable tumor? The robotics that have made inoperable tumors operable, with a robot arm capable of performing surgery inside an MRI machine, came from the space program. For that matter, MRI technology itself was based on innovations from the space program as well.

Do you drive? Goodyear improved the strength and durability of their radial tires in 1976, after developing a material for NASA to parachute the Vikings to a soft landing on the Martian surface.

Firefighters wear a lot of gear when they run into your burning building to save you. A lot of that gear – from the breathing system, face mask, frame, and harness; to the air bottle itself, which is made of an aluminum composite material developed by NASA for use on rocket casings – was initially developed for the space program.

Better baby food. Better solar panels. Better food safety systems – solutions for growing crops in space have lead to solutions for mold prevention on Earth.  Safer bridges, cars, and roller coasters because of structural analysis software built for the space program. Memory foam, in your helmets as well as for your heinie.  UV sunglasses. The camera on your cell phone.  Portable cordless vacuums, god help me. Custom-fitted exoskeletons to help paraplegics walk, derived from space robotic systems. Implantable heart monitors and LED?based anti?cancer therapy.  Water purification technology built for space exploration now purifies millions of cubic meters of water every day, in hundreds of towns.

The author of this article is so myopically focused on the trees of poverty and famine that he misses the forest of humanity’s impending overpopulation crisis.  “If Elon Musk wanted to do something spectacular, he’d have given the money to the poor instead of a spaceship to nowhere.” He offers no concrete solutions for *how* Musk should have used his money to alleviate poverty. “Give the money to the poor” is a child’s answer. Part of the importance of the launch was the cost – SpaceX spent $90 million (OK, plus the cost of Musk’s car), which is about $300 million cheaper than anyone else can do it.  There are an estimated 43.1 million Americans living in poverty (or were, in 2015, per the Census Bureau’s estimates).  At $90 million, Musk could have given each of them enough money to cover a cup of coffee at Starbucks, which would have impacted their lives… Not at all.

Stephen Hawking said that “to confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.” Elon Musk’s Telsa Roadster has people looking at the stars again, and I think that’s a very good use of his money.

One Response to “In Defense of the Final Frontier”

  1. Absolutely! I was so excited to watch the SpaceX launch. I’ll admit that i think that Elon Musk does somewhat crazy rich guy really well, but I, for one, am glad he does. Well said!

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