With the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet-chasing spacecraft having just ‘woken up’, and NASA’s Kepler space observatory making groundbreaking discoveries, it’s hard to believe the miserabilists are still winning the fight and governments across the West continue to cut funding to space programs.
Only a few weeks back, the Kepler spacecraft found 715 new planets orbiting 305 stars. Many of these planetary systems mirror our own, with four especially significant planets orbiting in their suns’ ‘goldilocks’ zone - not too hot and not too cold, but ‘just right’ to hold liquid water on its surface and, possibly, support life.
Scientific ventures into space like this stimulate our imagination, and have historically provided the drive for humanity to do incredible things. So why, while Chinese and Indian programs are taking off, are the space programs of the West burning up in the wake of budget cuts? NASA has this week taken a hit of around $186million. This may only represent approximately one per cent of NASA’s overall budget, but their funding is nevertheless being reduced, slowly but surely, every year.
The most significant reason for this lack of investment, which goes beyond the current economic climate, is that the modern perception of space science is becoming ever-more negative. Compared to other scientific endeavours, such as medicine, engineering or environmental sciences, space science is still seen as distant, otherworldly, and unable to produce immediate short-term benefits. The JFK spirit of doing it precisely because it is hard seems to have vanished, replaced with a tacit ‘been there, done that’ attitude. What we forget is that when the world watched the Eagle landing, a generation became yoked to scientific progress and space exploration. Every science, and every part of society, benefits.
It’s time we reinvigorated the spirit of space exploration for its own sake and invest in what remains one of the most inspiring expressions of human ingenuity.