Dear Carol McGiffin, Space Exploration is Taking Care of Our Own Planet and Here’s Why

An article came out recently, written by popular columnist Carol McGiffin, arguing that space exploration is “a waste of money,” especially when we have so many problems here on Earth.

This argument is not a new one. In fact, it’s one that those of us in the space industry are accustomed to hearing quite frequently. This is probably because space exploration is a very visible way in which the United States spends money, but the benefits of exploration are, perhaps, less obvious.

In 2014, the U.S. allocated $17 billion to space flight and research. That’s certainly a lot of money, and any time we spend a significant amount of citizens’ hard earned tax dollars on anything, it is worth a critical look. Questioning the benefit of such spending is both necessary and justified, even if that $17 Billion is only 0.5% of the total federal budget.

The challenge for those of us who support space exploration is to eloquently and concisely present a counterargument to people like McGiffin. This isn't easy for a couple of reasons. For one, the benefits of space exploration are as diverse as those who have dedicated their lives to this field.

Another reason it’s difficult for us to give McGiffin a short, simple justification for space exploration, is that many of the benefits won’t be seen or felt for tens, or sometimes hundreds, of years. For example, spending a billion dollars to rendezvous a spacecraft on a comet seems pretty benefit-less today. But a hundred years down the road, when a comet the size of Los Angeles is spiraling toward Earth, we’re going to hope we have developed the technology to rendezvous and deflect that away from our planet.

There have been many others who have tackled this question adeptly and creatively. These individuals speak to the great innovations created through space exploration that benefit various industries (NASA keeps an entire database of Spinoffs), the educational programs and materials NASA creates to promote STEM literacy and inspire the next generation of innovators, and the greater understanding we have of the Earth as a planet and how it changes over time.

Because McGiffin specifically sites the fact that we are plundering our own planet and have plenty of starving people here on Earth as the reason why space exploration is a waste, I will focus on the last benefit mentioned above: NASA has studied the Earth more than any other planetary body in our universe. There are over twenty Earth observation satellites actively working on missions to better understand the Earth as a dynamic, changing planet. I’ll highlight just two of these satellites and explain the benefit they provide to the people of Earth. 


Landsat Program

If you’re over the age of 45, the world population has doubled in your lifetime. This disturbingly quick growth translates to increased use of land and resources.  Today, humans occupy or make use of 80 percent of the land available, including the 40 percent used for agriculture. Due to these limited resources and a population that continues to grow, there is an increasing need for decision-making and policy actions across multiple geographic scales.

Landsat satellites provide an updated 360 degree image of the Earth every sixteen days, so that we are able to monitor, understand, and better manage the resources required for human sustainment.

With help from Landsat we can monitor the cultivation of our food crops, quantify our precious water resources as they ebb and flow, and track deforestation globally. Landsat data constitute a key ingredient in decision making for agriculture, climate research, disaster mitigation, ecosystems, forestry, human health, urban growth, and water management.

In short, yes, McGiffin, there are people starving here on Earth. Thankfully, however, we have space exploration to monitor and pinpoint the factors that lead to this (and many more problems) so that policymakers may be well informed when deciding how to combat these issues.

Learn more about Landsat on Xploration Outer Space at 9:00 mark here.


ICESat Program

The Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) program is designed to measure the rate of change of the world’s ice sheets and sea ice. Because of ICESat, we’ve been able to see that Greenland averaged a 300 km^3 loss annually from 2003 to 2013. We care about ice sheet elevation because melting ice sheets result in rising sea levels, ocean circulation changes, and altered rainfall patterns and global heat transfer.

This is the type of data climate scientists require to better understand how our climate is changing and the effect these changes will have on the humans who live here.

In short, yes McGiffin, humans are “plundering” our own planet which has resulted in things like melting ice sheets. Thankfully, however, we have space exploration to tell us precisely what effect that plundering has on our Earth so that we can make sure our citizens are prepared and even alleviate the potential damage these changes may cause.

Learn more about ICESat on Xploration Outer Space at 12:00 mark here.


The Benefits Outweigh the Costs

Of course I realise that questioning space exploration will mean its devotees will label me an ignoramus who’s against progress and a philistine who’s not curious about what’s out there and about how we got here. But I am curious. I just don’t see how the human race actually benefits from knowing any of that stuff. It’s not going to save us from ourselves, is it?
— Carol McGiffin

McGiffin, space exploration devotees may label you as an “ignoramus,” as you say, but it’s not for the reasons you assume. While a sense of curiosity is practically required to work in the space industry, this is not the only reason we explore. Space exploration gives us the critical and irreplaceable capability to comprehend our dynamic, changing world. It’s the means by which we make informed decisions on how to conserve water, cultivate crops, combat climate change, and prepare for natural disasters. We must leave our planet to better understand it.

Of course the benefits of space exploration go beyond Earth observation alone.  However, even if this was the only benefit, wouldn't that be enough?  Wouldn't you choose to spend half a cent on the federal dollar to be able to know when our sea levels will rise and by how much? When the next hurricane will come and what category it will be? How long the next drought will last? How weather patterns will affect crop seasons for years to come?

In space, no one can hear you scream.  Here, McGiffin, everyone hears you screaming, we just think you’re vastly misinformed. 

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