Monday, February 06, 2012

‘Wasting’ money in space (vs. elsewhere)

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

My latest column in Gulfnews was about funding of space exploration. In the article, I tried to show that not only is the worldwide budget insignificant compared to a variety of other really wasteful spending, but that we should indeed invest in space research, for this reflects our socio-cultural attitudes and objectives.

Here are excerpts from the piece:
The launch of a new space mission, and even more so the failure of a spacecraft (as we witnessed recently), invariably leads me to face the following question from students and acquaintances: why do we waste that kind of money in spacey pursuits when we have so much human poverty and suffering that we should be trying to alleviate here on earth?
The total space budget of all nations on Earth is less than 40 billion dollars. NASA’s budget for 2012 is $ 19.5 billion (that is 0.5 % of the entire US budget); ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) budget was $ 5.65 billion in 2011; the Russian space budget amounted to about $ 2.5 billion; China’s is $ 2 billion; India’s is $1.6 billion; plus small amounts for smaller countries.

The whole human expenditure on space projects, including all satellites, rockets, spacecrafts and the hundreds of thousands of people who work on that, increases by less than 1 % each year!
Contrast this with the world’s spending in the military sector (armament and personnel): a whopping $ 1630 billion in 2010, the US part representing 42 % of that! That’s 40 times more than the worldwide space budget, and that amount increases by about 5 % each year.

Now, lest anyone think that they are not responsible for any of this (neither the space money “waste” nor the scary military budget), I would like to mention a few other kinds of expenses, these being more at the personal level. Each year in Europe (for which we have statistics), people spend about $ 50 billion a year on cigarettes; Europeans, who constitute only 10 % of humans, spend $ 150 billion a year on alcoholic drinks, $ 24 billion on pet food, $ 200 billion on cosmetics, and $ 1400 billion (yes, that’s $ 1.4 trillion) on entertainment and media (music, cinema, TV shows, electronics, newspapers and magazines)!
One [other approach] is to list the numerous and diverse spinoffs that have resulted from space research. Indeed, because space places different sets of constraints on any project, be it a new satellite or a trip to Mars, new tools often need to be developed, and these almost always find applications in our lives here on Earth. There are, without exaggeration, hundreds of spinoffs, ranging from bio-medical techniques to digital systems, from imaging technology to robotics, where important uses have been found in medicine, meteorology, environmental monitoring (of potential or unfolding disasters), information and communication technology, remote sensing, surveillance, and many other fields.
What must be stressed is that such applications do indeed lead to helping address and alleviate the poverty and human suffering, which the skeptics of space projects insist that we focus on.
Encouragement for students to take on this field and its applications must come in the form of strategic projects, where governments and companies invest for the future. Salaries and rewards must be substantial. But most importantly, society in general, and the vital education and media sectors in particular, must project a bright image of those fields and of the people who pursue them.

It is a shame that hardly anyone can name an Arab or Muslim astronaut (yes, a few have gone up to space), but many can name entire sports teams or movie casts. We need to change this, for our future and our children’s.

You can read the whole article here, if you wish.


Gary said...

There is something you missed that I believe tops the list of reasons for spending on space. That is the sense of awe and wonder it generates. I can remember in my final year of high school cutting classes to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. That grainy black and white TV broadcast was awesome. I still have my own Apollo 11 mission patch and the even more stunning colour photo of Earthrise.

Sadly with the CGI graphics in movies these days, (another space program spin-off) too many of us replace that sense of awe by watching computer generated aliens and alien worlds in Hollywood movies or immersive games.

That Earthrise photo was perhaps the most powerful image of its time to change our perspective of Earth and our place in the cosmos. The Hubble photos are today's equivalent magnified manyfold.

Hubble and other space based telescopes have vastly broadened our cosmic horizons. The planetary missions have opened our eyes to the grandeur of our solar system and helped us understand our own planet better.

The space program spin-offs have been huge in terms of their economic and social contribution but the sense of awe and wonder it still delivers is priceless.

Anonymous said...

Gary, is this awe and wonder worth it at the perish of our fellow human beings? I think not.

Salamulaikim Good article again Jazakallah

Gary said...

To Anonymous: we spend 40 billion dollars worldwide on a space program which produces tangible benefits in addition to a sense of Awe and wonder and indeed humility at our place in the cosmos.

It is worth far more than the $1640 billion dollars spent worldwide on the death and destruction delivered by military armaments.

Asad M said...

The same question is asked of CERN's $10 billion+ Large Hadron Collider. CERN almost gave us the 'internet' so any amount of investment there will only be a small payback.

A bit of sci-fi…..may be in the next few hundred (or thousands) years or so the earth will be stripped of its natural resources and atmosphere, thus rendered uninhabitable. Then humans will have to look to Mars (or some other planet) to move to and the space programs, if operational then, will help us call a new planet home.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, everyone.
Actually, I agree with all your comments; I don't think there is any disagreements in all that's been said. However, it's difficult to convince the public that "awe and wonder" are worth billions of dollars. Still, I tried to steer the readers into that direction by referring to the importance of "look[ing] upward" and to the cultural and educational goals behind space exploration.

Frases de amor said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.
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Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Frases; it's really nice when someone just writes to say "I appreciate this". Best to you.

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Your Dude said...

We shouldn’t spend money on space exploration until we’ve solved our problems here on Earth”. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard or read the previous sentence or variations of it, I would have a very big pile of nickels. I just heard it again recently. It is the kind of reasoning that would have Christopher Columbus still waiting for the go ahead on his expeditions. Spending on space exploration frequently triggers strong emotions on both sides of the questions. In my mind it triggers the question, “What is the appropriate level of spending on NASA?”
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Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hmmm, so I got taken in by that spambot... Not quite familiar with all the tricks... We learn every day... Thanks.

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