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Hillestad ’15: Mars or bust

A manned mission to Mars is the next major step in human achievement, and according to current estimates, NASA should be able to accomplish the feat by the mid-2030s. But given the constant, crippling budget cuts that NASA faces, that estimate may be little more than wishful thinking. If we want to get serious about going to Mars, the U.S. government needs to give NASA its full backing.

But why should we explore space at all? For one, NASA creates jobs, stimulates the economy and provides trickle-down technologies — the same scientific principles behind space exploration have resonance in more mundane consumer products. And, perhaps most importantly, space is the future.

The progress of humanity can aptly be measured by our capacity for exploration. Our willingness to venture into the unknown, to explore new frontiers and discover new lands is the hallmark of the human race. The trailblazers who risk their lives for the sake of exploration are revered as heroes, and rightfully so. From daring scientists to roaming merchants, their stories are the stuff of legends.

Leif Erikson. Marco Polo. Jacques Cousteau. Neil Armstrong. These great adventurers pushed the scope of human knowledge to previously unimaginable heights. They ventured further, dove deeper and flew higher than anyone else dared to go. They gave us hope. They let us dream. As Sir Isaac Newton’s saying goes, we only see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Vasco da Gama. Ferdinand Magellan. Francis Drake. Buzz Aldrin. But who will now take up the mantle of exploration? If the U.S. government continues to marginalize NASA’s space programs, the answer will be nobody. Or at least no American, as our presence in space continually dwindles before the looming shadow of up-and-coming superpowers.

The 2015 NASA budget request is a familiar story: more cuts. NASA’s budget will likely be slashed again, this time to a new low of $17.46 billion, which is less than .5 percent of the U.S. Federal Budget. If carried out, this would mark the lowest NASA budget since the organization’s founding years from 1958 to 1959. Worst of all, the cuts have largely been in NASA’s planetary exploration programs.

Some say that in this age of recessions and massive budget deficits, NASA’s billion-dollar budget is better spent elsewhere. But I find that argument unconvincing when the U.S. spends upward of $640 billion a year on the military.  Surely some of that money can be diverted toward NASA.

So while we began our exploration of space with gusto, our country has now forsaken the final frontier in favor of less noble pursuits.

An American spacecraft was the first and only manmade object to orbit Jupiter. The first man on the moon was American, and the first rover on Mars was — you guessed it — American.

And now we can’t even run missions into space without hitching a ride on Russian shuttles. Our space program has long since been eclipsed by foreign powers. An Indian spacecraft, backed by a budget of just $74 million, recently entered Mars’ orbit on its maiden voyage. India’s success comes on the heels of NASA’s similar MAVEN mission, which cost America 10 times as much.

Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit company, has said it intends to establish a permanent colony on Mars by 2025. The company’s unique business model will utilize crowd-funding and volunteer colonists. To date, over 200,000 people from around the world have applied for positions. While America still spends far more money on its space program than any other country, other global powers are evidently finding ways to do more with less. As a result, America’s space program — once a source of national pride and inspiration — has become an international embarrassment.

Of course, nationalistic pride on its own is not sufficient reason to prioritize NASA’s mission again. But there are also concrete benefits that come with a flourishing space program. A small minority of NASA’s money goes into the actual machines they launch into space. Most of it is spent here on Earth in the form of salaries and outsourcing to private companies. NASA is a goldmine for job creation, from world class scientists to everyday laborers. Private companies like Tempur-Pedic got their start with NASA, and aerospace behemoths like Boeing are consistently granted billion-dollar contracts that spur the economy forward.

These massive undertakings are an enormous boon to America’s lucrative aerospace industry. But when budget cuts hit, thousands of people lose their jobs and billions of dollars in potential contracts are lost. When the shuttle program was disbanded in 2011, an estimated 4,600 people went out of work.

Moreover, NASA is responsible for a wide range of world-changing technological advances. GPS, laser angioplasty and body imaging systems like CT scans and MRIs can all be traced back to NASA technology. A strong NASA program means a continual stream of such trickle-down technologies. Some of NASA’s most important technology have the potential to save millions of lives. The Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search aims to detect nearby asteroids, which would be catastrophic if they struck Earth. But at the present, NASA’s arsenal of programs for detecting impending impacts are woefully underfunded. These programs need more money, but NASA’s budget continues to be cut.

But why explore space, beyond the practical benefits of NASA? Because we can. Because we’re curious and want to know what’s out there. Because that’s what’s next. Practical justifications are secondary. There is an inherent value to exploration.

We do not know exactly what we might find on Mars, and that’s the point. Perhaps we’ll discover more evidence of water — or even life — on Mars. Maybe there will be valuable natural resources that warrant a permanent human settlement on the red planet. Or maybe Mars will be beautiful but otherwise barren. Regardless of the outcome, we won’t know until we go there.

In the 1500s, there was the New World to explore. Then America had the wild west frontier to tame. Once we ran out of land, there was the ocean floor to map. And now, space is calling our name. But who will answer?

This is a question of paramount importance. When our willingness to push boundaries stagnates, so too does the progress of the human race.

 

Sam Hillestad ’15 has yet to give up his childhood dream of going to space. NASA needs philosophers and journalists, right? He can be reached at samuel_hillestad@brown.edu.

 

A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the United States sent the first astronaut into space. In fact, Russia did. The Herald regrets the error.



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