When NASA’s Bill Anders photographed Earthrise in 1968, it roused a deeply profound reaction from the public: the largely unprecedented scale of the earth, by way of the lunar orbit, produced an “overview effect” which transported its viewers into the existential sublime as they contemplated their planet, and all the attached sentimentality of memory and history contained within it, in a single, compelling image.
Such environmentally monumental photographs like Earthrise, The Blue Marble, and Pale Blue Dot have been made possible by the funding of space exploration and research – funding which has likewise made possible the invention of CAT scans, baby formula, and wireless headphones, to name a few inventions. It is fair to say that these photographs and inventions hold, in one way or another, beneficial influence on a significant portion of our population. In the broader sense, space exploration has eased, to an extent, the political tensions between many nations – most notoriously, perhaps, between the United States and Russia – and has, effectively, defined itself as a token of international cooperation and harmony.
Yet, the cost of funding such achievements and collaborations, as enabled by space exploration, is undoubtedly “cosmic”. NASA’s budget for 2023 was set for $25.4 billion. This past December, SpaceX completed a round of funding amassing $750 million.
It is difficult to tolerate such progressions from funding space research when confronting the more grisly face of those crises which peril a greater number of people, to a more pressing and persistent degree, here on Earth. I want to introduce a different, more “grounded” set of images:
Earthrise, The Blue Marble, and Pale Blue Dot all serve as sweeping vistas in the overview effect they provide, but it seems more plausible to suggest that the photograph of a demolished hometown or bloodied woman, say, offers a more humanistic overview effect, and more compelling reasons to shift much of the attention currently earned by space research to more earthly affairs.
It is true that there are many critical inventions that have been created, in large part, to contributions made above the clouds; yet, would it have been more economically worthwhile to deposit funds into programs and efforts here? Had the costs and tribulations associated with experiencing space flight and spacecraft, for example, been cut, would there have been greater room for other inventions?
Space exploration, in all actuality, poses a relatively small portion of budget spending: NASA, for one, turns out to be just about 0.5% of the annual federal budget in the US. NASA’s 2023 budget, $25.4 billion, is still, nevertheless, a hearty sum of money. It may not solve every war or disease, nor remove each environmental or political threat, but it can accomplish a very large deal.
Sometimes these perspectives are more easily viewed through a microcosmic filter – yes, you may not be able to fix attention and financial resources to all in need, but much more than one person, family, or community will certainly be better off for it. Maybe the search for extraterrestrial habitats seems especially urgent in the face of a seemingly unsustainable planet, or maybe, too, the discovery of alien life seems itchingly intriguing, but are they really valuable reasons to pursue space exploration? If time and resources were to be further devoted to, say, the communities like hurricane-ravaged Fort Myers, or the medical services which seek to aid individuals like Semyon, then, piece by piece, the urgency of seeking more visionary horizons beyond the familiar sun of our own would be slowly allayed.
The argument for or against limiting space exploration is a complicated one, requiring, for a fair solution, a multi-disciplinary approach and collaboration – one far beyond my own expertise. If, however, there is a single take-away point I feel I can bring to the table, it is that it is important to not omit humanity from greater projects and endeavors – to push the boundaries of human achievement and invention is certainly glorious and uniquely human, but to be mindful of doing so within the frame of humanistic intentions is imperative for both our endurance and, simply, our sensibility for one another.
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“20 Inventions We Wouldn’t Have without Space Travel.” NASA, NASA, https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/infographics/20-inventions-we-wouldnt-have-without-space-travel.
Department, TIME Photo. “Time’s Top 100 Photos of 2022.” Time, Time, 23 Nov. 2022, https://time.com/6234958/top-100-photos-2022/.
Kyodergrist. “How the View from Space Might Be Key to Saving the Planet.” Grist, 9 Feb. 2022, https://grist.org/climate/overview-effect-view-of-earth-from-space-astronauts-climate-change/.
Mosher, Dave. “85% Of Americans Would Give NASA a Giant Raise, but Most Don’t Know How Little the Space Agency Gets as a Share of the Federal Budget.” Business Insider, Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/nasa-budget-estimates-opinions-poll-2018-12?r=US&IR=T.
Q.ai – Powering a Personal Wealth Movement. “SpaceX to Raise $750 Million in Its Latest Round of Funding.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Jan. 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/qai/2023/01/10/spacex-to-raise-750-million-in-its-latest-round-of-funding/?sh=d1ae24111feb.
“Your Guide to NASA’s Budget.” The Planetary Society, https://www.planetary.org/space-policy/nasa-budget.