Do We "Waste" Money on Space Technology?
When I meet someone who discovers I work with satellites, a typical response is: “That’s very interesting, but I wish we would spend that money to improve life here on Earth!” This is a response those of us working in the space industry routinely encounter.
On those occasions when I don’t simply dismiss the comment, I often respond with a series of questions. Do you ever make an international phone call? Do you subscribe to DirectTV or Sirius XM Radio? Do you rely on weather reports? Do you use an app on your phone to find out how to get where you’re going?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you are a full-fledged user of space technology, and that’s fantastic, because technology such as this improves our day-to-day lives.
The conversation continues as we delve deeper into how this technology does indeed improve lives: Do you think the government should be able to identify, track, and warn people about major storms? Should agencies be able to better understand the impact of natural disasters and mobilize relief for those in need? Should people in remote, infrastructure-poor, or politically isolated areas be denied access to world news, education, and medical services? Should our government stop using spacecraft to track missiles, nuclear explosions, or terrorist activities?
Perhaps the technologies and systems we develop and operate are so integrated into day-to-day products that people often have no idea they are using a service that somehow relies on a satellite.
Of course, at some point during these questions, my point is generally made. As a proud member of the aerospace community – formerly in the industry, and now an educator preparing a new generation of aerospace professionals – I sometimes wonder if perhaps we are victims of our own success. Perhaps the technologies and systems we develop and operate are so integrated into day-to-day products that people often have no idea they are using a service that somehow relies on a satellite. In nearly all cases, those I’m talking with express surprise that satellites are a critical aspect of many of the services they use daily, and they will revise their original statement.
On occasion, the conversation will turn to science missions, such as the planetary spacecraft or space telescopes run by NASA. I concede that this adds a different dimension to the conversation, since the value of these spacecraft doesn’t translate to immediate economic return or societal benefit. Such “pure science” missions are justified based on intangible ideas like contributing to knowledge, developing a better understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, or the promise of spin-off technologies. Given their esoteric nature, it can be hard to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars – or more – on such missions, particularly when alternate priorities addressing poverty, injustice, and human suffering exist.
life on Earth has been made better through satellite-based products and services
So then, to what extent should the government fund “big science” conducted by large-scale space missions? Is it a waste to do so? Well, that’s a topic for another time. But the fact remains that life on Earth has been made better through satellite-based products and services, and few of us would consider that a waste.