Tuesday, 20 April 2004 11:00

Why the Space Program is Vital to America

The United States would not exist today if people with courage, like Christopher Columbus, had not pushed their frontiers.  Opponents of our space program are like those who ridiculed Columbus before he sailed into the unknown. The Queen of Spain could not have imagined the centuries of benefits that have come because of that voyage, yet Spain and the rest of the world have profited greatly because she took the risk and financed that exploration.

Likewise, it is impossible for us to predict the specific paybacks that will come to the United States and humankind for exploring today?s largest frontier.  We only know that there will be more benefits and greater knowledge which will be broader than we can imagine.  If we ignore the great unknown and cease the exploration of space, we will not learn, improve, or continue to progress towards a deeper understanding of the universe and world in which we live.  Socrates understood this when he said, "The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance."

The benefits of space exploration are not pie in the sky.  Every person is affected and often surrounded by technologies created or influenced by the space program.  If the past is a good predictor of the future (and it is), then that evidence should have the public screaming for more exploration.  I believe the main reason they are not is that most people don?t realize the effect that the space program has had on their lives.

We need a space program in order to continue this important exploration and to continue to learn more about the earth, the moon, and the stars.  Discoveries in astronomy, physics, and cosmology, as well as in medicine and technology, are made every day from the Hubble Space Telescope and aboard the International Space Station.  We must not cease to explore the unknown.  Only through a constant effort to learn and to achieve will we become brighter, stronger, and wiser.  Not knowing what is out there; and, just because it is there; are strong enough reasons for us to strive to learn more, to see more, and to explore the unknown."  Through a strong effort by NASA and related agencies around the world, we are able to thrust ahead in a never-ending quest for knowledge.

The International Space Station has been called the flagship for international cooperation.  Through it, the United States, working with other countries, is generating goodwill and building a basis for cooperation here on Earth.  This cooperation can change the society we live in today.  Instead of pitting nation against nation (as in battle), we would be united in facing a new challenge; mankind against the undiscovered frontier of space.

Medicine is an area that has benefited greatly from spin-offs from the space program.  Many patients with what used to be incurable diseases are now screened, evaluated, cured, and maintained with instruments that were derived from the space program.  Examples of these are kidney dialysis machines, developed as a result of a NASA developed chemical process for removing toxic wastes from the body, and CAT scanners, implemented after the technique used by NASA for finding imperfections in aerospace components like castings, rocket motors, and nozzles.  Even the technology used in the Space Shuttle fuel pumps has led to an expansion in medical technology?the miniature heart pump.

The telecommunications industry hardware has been almost completely swapped out with space-related technologies.  Satellites have vastly improved global communications used by the Internet, telephone, radio, and television.  Pagers and some cell phones today communicate via satellite.  Satellites make communication possible to areas of the world that were previously unreachable.  At least one-third of the people in our world today lack a formal educational system and modern health care services.  These problems could be alleviated in the future by providing a space-based communication system to those in need.  Instead of suffering from starvation and disease, people could be taught how to farm, heal wounds, limit infections, or procure medicines.

Many scientists feel that we are consuming Earth?s natural resources at an enormous rate.  We might one day need the space program in order to obtain more resources, perhaps by mining the moon or asteroids.  The necessary technology might then allow us in the future to study more about the natural satellites around us, which are rich in minerals.  By doing so, we might find a way to maintain life on other celestial bodies.

Our abilities to warn of probable environmental threats are now dependent on systems in outer space.  A network of weather and surveillance satellites helps in tracking and giving weather advisories about storms, hurricanes, tidal waves, and fires.  Instruments up in space even allow us to monitor pollution levels, global warming, the ozone hole, and other environmental threats to life on our planet.
National defense and security greatly benefit from the space program and are dependent on outer space networks.  Security systems for missile guidance and delivery, detecting attacks, reconnaissance, and surveillance also depend on tracking satellites.  These satellites relay information about an object?s altitude, course, speed, and velocity.  Aircraft and ships at sea also rely on these global positioning satellites for navigation.

The thirst for knowledge about the unknown is what keeps our society growing.  I sometimes look up into space and wonder about what is up there, just like Homer Hickam, a young rocketeer in the novel October Sky.  If we stop exploring, it would be as if Columbus had never sailed, and humankind would no longer savor the benefits and spin-offs of universal discovery.  No matter where you are, you are probably using some sort of technology that has benefited from the space program.  The  phone you carry, the channels you watch, and the things that keep you safe and healthy, and the way in which you live all benefit from space technology.  From experience, we know that there will be many more, not yet imagined benefits of the space program.  So, why do we need a space program?  We need a space program to quench our thirst for knowledge, improve relations with other countries, strengthen our vital and important national spirit, and, of course, reap the practical benefits of new discoveries.

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