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.