30 years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed just over one minute into its 10th mission. Traveling at 1,977mph, the shuttle was increasing its throttle as planned. Seconds later, the craft became a fireball and the world could do nothing but stand by helplessly and watch.1
It was a tragedy and the first fatal flight NASA had in 56 launches. As a result, the entire Space Shuttle program was grounded for two and a half years.
The problem was later traced back to a seal (the O-ring) around a piece of the rocket boosters which had failed. It is likely that the freezing temperature the night before the launch had caused the O-ring to become brittle and lose its malleability. As the O-ring failed, extremely hot gasses escaped the rocket booster and damaged the external fuel tank. Ultimately, the mixture of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen caused the explosion which tore apart the ship. 2, 3, 4
Our thirst for exploration is fraught with peril. But hopefully we can recognize the sacrifice that many make in order to further the advancement of humankind’s knowledge. And it’s abundantly clear that the journey to seek answers and get a better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our universe requires brave souls.
With the risk to life and the financial cost of the space program, many wonder if it’s even worth it. I mean, c’mon, we landed on the moon, right? Why even bother with anything more? What else can there be?
A lot actually.
Yes, just getting to space is a treacherous affair. Add onto it that going into space isn’t a cheap endeavor and heap on the fact that that space itself seemingly looks to absolutely kill us at every turn, many people exasperatedly question “why even bother?”
And that, my friends, is the exact wrong question.
-Imagine if Alexander Flemming had said “why even bother?” and had simply thrown out the lone staphylococci culture that was contaminated with a fungus (penicillin)? Or if, after seeing how difficult penicillin was to grow (not to mention the added difficulty of isolating the antibiotic agent), he decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble to pursue it any further?
-Image if Charles Darwin, when his friend John Stevens Henslow invited him to join the crew of the HMS Beagle as Captain FitzRoy’s companion, had listened to his father’s objections (of the trip being a complete waste of time) and said “why even bother?”
-Imagine if Orville and Wilbur Wright had just said “why even bother?” when experimenting on flight after years of failure?
Now please don’t get me wrong; I’m not meaning to suggest that my humdrum life in any way compares to the amazing things people do on a daily basis for the good of humankind. Nope, I regularly find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum, struggling just to fight off the urge to give up when my three year old refuses to go to bed for the night. That, and finding a matching tie to go with my shirt in the morning.
Joking aside, exploration is written into our DNA; and overcoming adversity is a necessity in order to fully realize the benefits of that exploration. It’s easy for contrarians to denounce the space program and argue for the money or manpower to be directed elsewhere. It’s similarly easy to quickly glance at the accomplishments of the program, rest on those laurels, and question “why even bother?” or to say “we’ve gotten everything we can from the program.” But take a moment to consider the benefits we still receive as a direct result of the space program.
Here are a few areas that may be most evident. Briefly…
The Medical Field
Industry crossover is nothing new. But when you think about what space has to do with the medical field, the first thing that probably comes to mind is some crude Uranus joke.
No, NASA hasn’t developed everything in the medical arena, but they have aided the advancement of diagnostic equipment and techniques. In fact, silicon chips used in the Hubble Space Telescope were adapted to more accurately detect tiny spots in breast tissue.5
Directly assisting in the fight against cancer, NASA uses the microgravity of orbit to grow human tissue (in addition to immune cells). That research aids not only our understanding of cancer growth, but also helps further the advancement of cancer treatments.6
Some of you may remember having to learn how to fold road maps, while others have escaped without that crease-inducing frustration. But we can all thank the GPS system for allowing us to quickly and easily pick the fastest route to our destinations…provided we actually pay attention to where we’re driving and not blindly obeying and pulling a Michael Scott.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the technology to not only put those satellites into orbit, but to be able to communicate with them and maintain them as well are a direct result of the space program.
Each country or joint-country venture has their own GPS satellite system, known as a Constellation. There are 24 GPS satellites in the US Constellation, 30 in the European Union Constellation, and 35 in the Chinese Constellation, for example.7
As a nerdy side-note, because there is a time difference between Earth and the GPS satellites, we have to apply equations to account for Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity to compensate for that discrepancy in order for the system to work correctly.
You’ve probably heard of this one before. You know, the device in your hand that you use to browse Facebook or play Candy Crush on while in the bathroom. Not only does it use satellites to communicate, but the technology of microcomputers was developed by NASA.
Take selfies or pictures of your food with your phone? NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab developed the concept of a digital camera back in the 60’s. By the 90’s, and through research and development, smaller digital cameras paved the way for the ones phone companies use today.
Those are just a few examples of the every-day benefits we enjoy. The following is a short list of additional benefits that you may hardly think of as having anything to do with the space program:
- Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TACS) on all aircraft.
- Doppler radar.
- Efficient vehicles and planes resulting not only from lightweight materials developed from research for the space station but also from NASA wind tunnels experiment data.
- Memory foam for impact protection in helmets, vehicles, and planes. Yep, the same kind mattresses we also use to help us sleep better.
- Water purification systems.
- Fire-resistant materials and improved firefighter equipment.
- Joystick controls for aircraft and computers. Video games too.
- Flat panel/plasma tv’s.
- Database management systems.
- Improved golf balls.
If that piqued your interest and you’d like more, here’s a link to an interactive feature on NASA’s site.
It seems hard to argue with many of these benefits, but there will still be penny-pinchers that ignore what the space program has done and refuse to see what potentials can still come from it. With an annual budget around $18 billion8, NASA is habitually the target of budget cuts; arguably more targeted than Board Walk and Park Place in the game of Monopoly. While that $18 billion seems like an incredible amount to spend, it’s a mere 0.4% of the US budget. Take a look at the US Department of Defense’s combined annual allotment of about $763 billion9 and that may re-frame things.
Ultimately, whether it’s a trek to the south pole, an expedition to the top of a mountain, a dive into the deep oceans, or reaching into the expanse of space, exploration is not for the timid. But just because there is danger, that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it. And just because it costs money, that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. There are prices to be paid; but there are also tremendous benefits to gain. We just have to be willing to commit to it.
In that respect, I don’t think JFK could have said it better:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”
5, 6. http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/belleau2/http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/belleau2/