So, what the heck is NASA good for anyway?

“Why do we need a space program? We got problems on Earth we need to worry about.”

Thus is the most repeated, and probably most uninformed, statement against having a government-funded space program goes — a program that takes 0.5 percent of the U.S. budget. But with that 0.5 percent, the U.S., and pretty much all of humanity, has gotten quite a track record of returns.

Know someone who has gotten an MRI or a CAT scan? NASA developed the digital image processing that opened the door to create and enhance images of the organs in the human body for diagnostic purposes.

Know someone with an artificial limb? The private sector has built upon work already done by NASA to create more functionally dynamic and more realistic artificial limbs.

Know a firefighter? Their protective suits and smoke masks are tied to work by NASA, too.

NASA and other space programs from around the world have touched most aspects of our lives. Whether it be on the macro-scale, where satellites and weather patterns are observed, to the camera in your smartphone and Tempur-Pedic foam in your shoes. Without the space programs throughout the world, we wouldn’t have modern communications, accurate weather alerts or pretty much anything that has made our lives both easier and longer today. We’d probably still be living as if it were 1938 perpetually.

Uncertain times

When it comes to the Donald Trump Administration, there’s lots of questions with “what’s going to happen” and “will NASA see its budget cut?”

What we do know is that the Administration wants to develop a “space force.” That space force is not geared toward scientific exploration, though. Instead, its purpose is counter entities like Russia and China in the race to militarize space. It’s an unfortunate reality, but considering that we rely so much on satellites for our communications and intelligence, both military and civilian, it’s certainly a necessity.

On the other hand, as we step up our efforts to protect our stuff in space, other things are deliberately cut or left behind.

Already, the administration’s stance on climate research is that it is “politically correct environmental monitoring” and the Asteroid Redirect Mission, a program to send astronauts to visit an asteroid by the 2020s and test technology that could be beneficial for a Mars trip, has been scrapped.

Now, a trip to Mars still sounds far-fetched to a lot of people. After all, it will take six months of travel either direction and the astronauts are expected to stay 18–20 months.

But imagine what could be developed from that? To survive on Mars, the astronauts will either have to store or grow food in a very limited space, develop plants that can grow well in low sunlight, find a source of heat that can last months with very little fuel and I could go on and on. But you get the point. Whatever develops out of that will wind up being used by the rest of us.

The Administration also plans to cut back funding for the International Space Station and other science research.

Beyond Trump

NASA itself has listed three breakthroughs it wants to achieve:

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is a planned space telescope for NASA’s Explorers program, designed to search for exoplanets using the transit method in an area 400 times larger than that covered by the Kepler mission.

• Discover a new propulsion methods that eliminates or dramatically reduces the need for propellant. This could mean discovering new ways to create motion, possibly by manipulating gravity or inertia or by manipulating any other interactions between matter and spacetime.

• Discover how to attain the ultimate achievable transit speeds to dramatically reduce deep space travel times. This could mean discovering a means to move a vehicle at or near the actual maximum speed limit for motion through space or through the modification of spacetime itself.

• Discover fundamentally new on-board energy production methods to power propulsion devices. This goal is included in the program since the first two goals could require breakthroughs in energy generation to power them and since the physics underlying the propulsion goals is closely linked to energy physics.

So what about that 0.5 percent of the federal budget? Well, it comes to $19.9 billion for NASA in 2018. That’s far smaller than other parts of the $1.2034 trillion of the discretionary spending out of the $4.094 trillion 2018 U.S. federal budget. Far smaller than other federal departments and agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, which gets $65.1 Billion, or Department of Defense, which gets $574 billion for military programs.

And if you think about it, technology developed or assisted by NASA could lower the expensive needs of the other two through its breakthroughs. That means our investment in NASA saves us money down the road.

So, what do we owe to the space program? Look around, you’ll probably find something within reach. Heck, you could be wearing it.

Weirdo who writes futurist-tinged columns about technology and science’s impact on society by night. Unfortunately, 2020 compels me to do politics too.

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