Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Space Cases

Several of my friends and colleagues - people I admire and respect - have opined that space travel is a waste of money, that the resources we devote to putting a man on the moon or space probes on Mars could be better used on Earth, presumably to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and so on. In other words, we should solve our problems at home before we start doing extraneous things like investigating outer space.

I've always been a space buff, so naturally I find this attitude somewhat shortsighted. But as a person who believes in social justice, I'm willing to ask myself if exploring space is worth the costs.

President Bush has asked Congress to increase NASA's budget from 15.4 to 16.2 billion dollars. That's a lot of cash, and sadly, thanks to Shrub's complete ignorance of rational space policy, much of that cash will probably be wasted on flashy projects designed not to advance science, but to score propaganda points and enrich aerospace firms (which donate millions of dollars to the Republican party).

That aside, let's pretend that 16.2 billion could be used only for experiments and programs that promise to deliver real results that will expand our knowledge of the universe. What kind of return are we getting on our investment? (And yes, even though I'm a Canadian, I do mean "we," even though my taxes aren't being touched by NASA. If we take a global perspective, we have to realize that resources diverted in one nation - and benefits accrued by that nation - affect all of us.)

Well, over the years NASA and other space agencies have given us reams of data about the composition of stars and planets, a much greater understanding of weather patterns on our own planet (including crucial environmental data), communications satellites, and various spinoff technologies that we use in everyday life. (Though some argue that such spinoffs could have been developed more efficiently with R&D programs devoted specifically to the invention of the spinoffs.) Space missions have also given us thousands of remarkable photographs, from the Earth/Moon shots of the Apollo missions to the Hubble Space Telescope's awe-inspiring vistas of deep space.

Could we make do without all this? I suppose we could. It's possible that understanding the nature of the universe is something we could learn in a thousand or ten thousand years, long after we've sorted out our problems. Perhaps it's not fair for us to delight in this new knowledge or to vicariously launch ourselves into space along with those daring astronauts - not when our neighbours are wondering where their next meal is coming from. I have to admit that I've had these doubts myself.

But let's see what else we're spending our money on.

Let's see...in the last three months of 2001, Coca-Cola enjoyed sales of $941 million. In just three months, human beings spent nearly a billion dollars on a soft drink that isn't even good for them. In fact, we're spending $60 billion a year on soft drinks.

One useless product that we can easily do without dwarfs NASA's budget. If we must eliminate space travel so that all that money can be devoted to solving Earth's problems, so too should that $60 billion we spend on soft drinks. There's just no excuse.

We spent over a billion dollars to see one movie: Titanic. Nearly that much to see three, the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

While we're at it, we should eliminate:

video games ($9.4 billion annually - nearly the size of the NASA budget)
NHL hockey ($2 billion)
Hallmark greeting cards ($4.3 billion annually - a quarter of the NASA budget - ONE greeting card company, producing one of the most wasteful and useless products on the market! And since Hallmark claims it has 50% of the greeting card market, I assume we're actually spending $8.6 billion a year on cards.)*

...and on and on it goes, including the US military, with an annual budget of $400 billion, more than every other government on Earth combined. The sheer waste and futility boggles the mind. How much are wealthy collectors willing to pay for rare works of art? Millions? Tens of millions? Why aren't we outraged that that money isn't being funnelled to worthy causes?

I think the lesson here is this: human beings spend a disproportionate amount of their intelligence and talent, not to mention the Earth's resources, on frivolity. Just as I defend NASA spending, I'm sure others can find reasons to support professional hockey and greeting cards.

But let's not kid ourselves. Even if every government on earth suddenly decided to cancel their space programs, the money saved wouldn't be diverted to feeding the hungry, healing the sick, or housing the homeless. More than likely, we'd all demand tax cuts so that we could buy more DVDs or books or Silly Putty.

I'm not alone in that. I'm just as hypocritical as everyone else.

But please, guys. Let's not single out the space program. At least our adventures in space have given us some genuinely worthwhile scientific insight. And perhaps more importantly, they've helped raised the consciousness of thousands of people, helping us see our Earth as one world without borders, a world that needs to be protected from our own shortsightedness. And we really can't predict the other benefits that may come from our exploration. Perhaps the answers to our problems can't be found on Earth; perhaps we need to look beyond our own horizons.

*Figures compiled from the New York Times, Advertising Age, Hallmark, and my own memories of box office figures. Come on, it's a Blahg, not a scholarly journal.

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