Julia Zarina: Rewards in space exploration

By Julia Zarina, Columnist
Published October 24, 2013

I’m willing to bet that the 125-million Americans who don’t support federal funding for space programs have never met Colonel Jack Lousma.

To hear the distinguished Michigan graduate, space shuttle pilot and capsule communicator of the Apollo 13 mission speak about his 17 years as an astronaut is to forget for a moment that you’ve never been out of Earth’s literal and figurative sphere of influence.

The stories he told during our interview were vivid reminders of what inspired me and thousands before me to live out childhood afternoons in refrigerator box spaceships big enough for tiny astronauts with stars in their eyes. They are what motivated dreams of space camp and Tang-drinking orangutans in zero gravity.

Most importantly, his experiences are critical reminders that space exploration demands a continued place in our curricula and political agendas, not just in our history textbooks as a faint, retro-futuristic fad of a bygone era.

Since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program two years ago, the United States is at a crucial crossroads in space research. In a political climate that is unreceptive to the financial costs associated with a national space program, the questions the country faces now are different from the ones at the beginning of the Space Race — funding and support, more than technological capabilities, are now the limiting factors to space exploration. Although societal trends dictating the use of such technologies have changed drastically in the past 60 years, space exploration today is as important as ever for both the immediate and long-term futures of innovation and research.

One of the most visible changes in space research is the introduction of commercial companies in an area that had previously been the exclusive jurisdiction of regulated government initiatives. Businesses like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have proven themselves to be successful, profitable partners in logistical roles associated with space exploration — such as delivering cargo to the International Space Station — and show potential for great growth in developing manned commercial spaceflight programs in the near future.

While commercial space companies will undoubtedly play a role of increasing importance in the future of space exploration, it is premature to say that we are past the era of government-funded space programs being necessary or useful. As Lousma emphasizes, the goals and most important functions of NASA as an organization relate to exploration and discovery, although their mission in recent years seemed analogous at times to running a kind of extraterrestrial airline to and from the International Space Station.

“I think it’s unlikely that the commercial sector will eventually take over (activities like) deep space exploration,” Lousma says. “It’s too costly, takes too much time and I’m guessing it will be an international effort when it does get underway ... It’s what NASA would like to do. The resources required and the startup cost of it is going to dictate that the federal government do this kind of research.”

Opponents argue that funding for space programs wastes money when there are widespread fiscal crises on Earth, and that the motivations that drove the United States to develop the world’s most advanced space program are no longer as relevant as they were during the days of Cold War rivalry. Although dominance in space exploration may not be at the forefront of our national security interests anymore, the continued support of these programs is both an economic asset and a social and scientific necessity.

Besides the positive economic returns associated with investing in space research, the average American benefits from these government-funded programs in tangible ways. Lousma points out that the benefits of space research have relevant mainstream applications and can be impossible to predict.

“Things we never thought might spin-off (from space research) are the things we have now: computers in every house, GPS systems, Internet, cell phones. A whole lot of things like that are spinoffs of space technology and are products that nobody ever thought of,” Lousma says.

“I think our greatest benefit is probably unknown at the moment.”

This idea may appeal to policymakers like Jack Marburger, former presidential science advisor, who was once quoted as saying the debate about space exploration “comes down to whether we want to bring the solar system within mankind’s sphere of economic influence”.

Although this may be true when it comes to debating the national budget, the real, compelling reasons space exploration matters are not found in the numbers. We study finance and government to be masters of our own systems, but the challenge of exploring something unknown for its own sake is what makes us uniquely human. We are compelled to write symphonies, climb mountains and break records not because it will make us rich, but because it will make us better collectively and as individuals.

“There are no grocery stores or gas stations in space,” Lousma remarks. “You have to learn to conserve your supplies and get along because you’re on a mission that is important, is risky and has consequences. In the same way, we’re on a spacecraft here; we live on the spacecraft Earth. It’s flying through space at tremendous speed and we need to learn to use our resources more effectively and efficiently and learn to get along with each other better than we have in the past in order to have a safe and successful mission.”

To purposefully examine and promote these ideas is to contribute to history and our own understanding in a profound and almost super-human way — it's impossible to quantify what is perhaps the most under-valued benefit of space exploration: the generations of scientists, astronauts, engineers and students who have been inspired to innovate and explore because of it.

“You’ll always find things that haven’t been done before,” Lousma says in support of those pursuing careers in space research. “It’s being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. And you’ll find that when it’s risky, there’s a lot of reward in winning.”

This is the real reason space exploration matters. The rewards are out there; it’s up to us to go get them.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.