Perhaps the best way to understand the value of space exploration is to return to the beginning.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union stunned Americans by launching the first successful unmanned satellite into orbit.
The next day, The New York Times downplayed the achievement.
“Military experts have said that the satellites would have no practicable military application in the foreseeable future,” the newspaper’s coverage said. “The satellites could not be used to drop atomic or hydrogen bombs or anything else on the earth. … Nor could they be used in connection with the proposed plan for aerial inspection of military forces around the world.”
Humankind’s vision of space travel was limited because space travel itself had yet to unlock its enormous scientific benefits.
Only a few visionaries, such as science writer Willy Ley, an exile from Nazi Germany, could imagine what was coming. In a speech in 1958, he predicted satellites equipped with televisions that could aid in weather predictions or navigation.
Even that proved to be shortsighted.
A study a few years ago by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group enumerated some of the spinoff technologies and everyday products modern people enjoy because humankind slipped beyond earth’s atmosphere.
Space exploration, it said, had contributed to such everyday products as solar panels, implantable heart monitors, cancer therapies, ultra lightweight materials, water-purification systems, modern computing systems and a global search and rescue system, to name a few.
Today, joggers can measure their runs via satellites. Drivers routinely get step-by-step navigation instructions to unfamiliar addresses through the same technology. People enjoy high-resolution camera phones, scratch-proof lenses in eyeglasses, thermal blankets, CAT scans, infrared thermometers that can take your temperature through your ear, highly effective insulation for homes, water purification systems, robotic arm technology for delicate surgeries and fireproof clothing for firefighters, all because of the space program.
NASA is about to launch Artemis 1, an unmanned space mission that aims to orbit the moon, setting the stage for humankind’s in-person return to the lunar surface in 2025. A planned launch was postponed on Monday but may take place later this week.
Critics have focused on the cost of this project, which is estimated at $4.1 billion per flight, at least at the start. They tend to stop there, without looking at the unforeseen economic benefits that will surely follow.
Writing for spacenews.com, Christian Zur said the world has yet to reap any benefits from the lunar surface. He, too, used history as a guide.
“In 1947, William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain well claimed the greatest invention of 20th century with the transistor,” he wrote, “but it would be the Apollo program 15 years later whose requirements drove Fairchild Semiconductor and other companies to refine the integrated circuitry capable of processing orbital flight dynamics and on-board systems.
“That seminal investment by NASA drove the price of a single computer chip down from $1,000 to less than $2 by 1969, while increasing reliability and capability by equally inverse proportions. Thus, the Information Age was underway.”
Viewed this way, the world can hardly afford not to continue space exploration. And with so many other nations now launching space programs, the United States can ill-afford to lag behind. Its leadership and international cooperation can help ensure that space exploration remains peaceful.
As Zur put it: “While we may not know the precise return on investment as a nation, we can surely surmise the imperative of the U.S. leading the innovation and invention to power the coming industrial epoch.”
That is only part of the benefit. As the James Webb Telescope recently demonstrated, humankind’s ability to see into a slice of infinite space has brought earth and life into a unique perspective, while unlocking imagination and curiosity.
With that in mind, a successful launch of Artemis 1 would be something to celebrate, indeed.