Funding space flight for the sake of exploration and inspiration

In this photo provided by the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) press service, a Soyuz-U booster rocket carrying the Progress MS-05 spacecraft blasts off from the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. The unmanned Russian cargo ship lifted off successfully Wednesday on a supply mission to the International Space Station. (Russian Space Agency Roscosmos press service via AP)

Logic and cost have never been, and should never be, considerations for sending man into space on public dime. As with creative works, the value of placing a man on the moon cannot be seen through a pragmatist’s lens.

In 1924, mountaineer George Mallory perished while summiting Mount Everest. When asked why he was attempting to climb Everest before his fatal effort, Mallory famously responded, “Because it is there.” If you were to ask the several hundred climbers who attempt the climb each year if logic were a motivating factor, you’d encounter hundreds of blank stares.

Man’s desire to do the illogical, absurd and impractical has purchased a fair number of grave plots and one-way tickets. Our desire to venture into space has, combining flight and testing incidents, resulted in well over 100 fatalities—some broadcast before millions, others engrained in the memory of a few.

In a March 1 column, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times took President Trump to task for his commitment to send humans back into space and eventually to Mars. Hiltzik made compelling arguments to support his case. Aside from the traditional economic rationale, Hiltzik relied on scientific reasoning, suggesting “placing humans on a space mission makes it so much more expensive than an unmanned flight that some elements of the mission get jettisoned — and those are almost always scientific projects.”

Looking at public expenditures for manned space flight will never result in support. In 1998, each launch of a U.S. space shuttle cost taxpayers $420 million. In 2014 NASA had actual expenditures of $17.6 billion, with the 2016 budget earmarking $8.51 billion of an $18.5 billion budget for “Human Exploration Operations”. For perspective, in 2014, the Department of Defense had a budget of $501.7 billion, up from $384.5 billion in 2000.

The Department of Defense's Inflation-Adjusted Base Budget in the years 2000 and 2014.  (screenshot/Congressional Budget Office)

Clearly, programs for manned space flight cannot be funded at significant cost to national defense or in favor of programs for the study of climate change and natural science. Yet, if the federal budget is untangled and clarified, it seems unlikely that the funds needed to make a concerted effort to return to space would be nonexistent.

This would be part of a larger shift from a defense-centric budget toward one aiming to protect the ecosystem, promote scientific gains and celebrate arts and creation. Putting our taxpayer dollars behind these ventures instead of machoism and posturing would pay dividends for world stability.

Some would argue if man is to return to space in a revolutionary way, it should be up to private corporations to fund the venture. While private corporations, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX have taken over much of the unmanned and cargo missions left by the vacuum of NASA’s budgetary restrictions, Musk has repeatedly alluded to his desire to send humans to space as well. Last month the entrepreneur announced plans to have human passengers orbit the moon by next year.

Though Musk and perhaps Jeff Bezos have deep enough coffers to fund these operations, manned space flight should be a public effort. Fields where loss is guaranteed and gain is intangible most often belong to the public. Why? Because without public backing, space travel would struggle to gain support.

To physicists, many in the scientific community and Hiltzik, these are only public relations campaigns meant to engage the public in NASA’s work. Isn’t that valuable? When President Kennedy announced his intention to send a man to the moon, he spoke of not only the space race but also the need to attempt the impossible. We don’t grow up hoping to control the rover wandering around Mars looking for samples and sending back grainy pictures. We aspire to be the astronauts aboard the space shuttle.

Moving forward, the myth of manned space flight as a grand scientific endeavor should be scrapped in favor of reality. Why are we sending humans into space, to the moon and on to Mars? Because we want to. Because we can. Because these things inspire. Inspiration is invaluable in this morbid, death-spiral of a world.

Genuine inspiration, whether in art or the image of a human conquering the dark abyssal reaches of our solar system, is essential to our existence.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu. He tweets @ChrisPSacco.