It has been almost half a century since the last human set foot on the moon. Apollo 17’s landing in 1972 carried Gene Cernan, our 11th and final moon-walker. That mission was never intended to mark the end of America’s manned moon-missions. Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were all planned, with landing sites and crews. The sole reason for their cancellations was, as it frequently is with science, money. Budgetary constraints left NASA having to cut the Apollo Programme short, just three years after Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind.
Fast forward to present day, and one can see the incredible advancements that came about directly because of the Space Race. Whilst on the face of it, we haven’t returned to the Moon, or landed humans on any other celestial bodies, that belies what has actually been a quite incredible half-century of progress. At the beginning of the new millennium, the first astronauts boarded the International Space Station, which has been continuously occupied for almost 19 years now. That is in stark contrast to the 76 hours the Apollo 11 mission had to sustain.
Whilst the ISS, and even the Moon landings, could be pointed to as mere vanity projects, lacking material benefit, that would be to ignore the enormous impact of our space exploits.
Earth now has 1886 satellites in orbit, which are used daily for everything from television broadcasting and communications, to the Global Positioning System and weather forecasts. Whilst these examples of the technological advancements are widely recognised as coming about directly from space exploration, there are many more whose origin may not be immediately obvious. Scratch resistant spectacles come from the windows of spaceships. Long life food storage has been developed from the need to feed our astronauts (Mark Wagner aside). Walkie talkies, fire-resistant clothing and digital optics also were developed as part of space programmes. Perhaps most surpassingly would be the ballpoint pen: a meticulously calculated solution to writing in weightlessness, it is now commonplace.
None of the major space agencies directly intended to solve these problems in themselves – they were necessary steps for the ever more ambitious projects they were undertaking. This nearly-unreasonable ambition led to a huge scope of technologies being advanced or discovered. This process is called a Moonshot(the name being derived from the original Moonshot – the Apollo missions). Moonshots are the exact reason that it is vital we continue to fund our further exploration of space.
Google X, Google’s semi-secret experimental lab, was created with the sole reason of pursuing Moonshot projects. None of these projects are funded with the expectation of short-term profitability, but rather with the faith that they will result in breakthroughs and progress. If one of the world’s most successful companies subscribes to such a model, why should our attitude to space be any different?
NASA’s budget this year is $21.5 billion. The US Military budget is $639 billion, 30 times more. Whilst there is clearly a need for defence spending, and sometimes no clear economic argument for space investment, this is the short-sighted viewpoint. It’s been estimated that for every dollar spent on the Apollo missions, the United States economy benefitted to the tune of 100 times that. The undertaking of the project without guarantee of returns resulted in one of the greatest investments in history. As we keep pushing our sights further out into the universe, to Mars and beyond, the technology required, and therefore the technology we’ll discover, will continue to advance. Not to invest in that would be a grave oversight.
If the cold logic of the cost-benefit analysis of space exploration does not persuade you, there is of course the more romantic viewpoint – we ought to pursue knowledge and enlightenment in everything. We can’t do that simply by remaining focused on a planet that represents only the smallest fraction of the universe.