One small step for science
NASA’s funding should be increased because it would benefit research and inspire more students
This past Sunday night, a familiar scene unfolded. A rocket, spewing flames, took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., bound for the International Space Station. The rocket, though, was not a space shuttle, and was carrying no crew. Additionally, the rocket was not even one of NASA’s, but rather a private company’s.
Both the rocket and the capsule filled with space station cargo were the products of a company called SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk, also the founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal. Since 2002, the company’s goal has been to provide the means for space exploration privately and more cheaply. SpaceX is one of a few companies that have contracted with NASA to resupply the International Space Station since the space shuttle missions have been retired. Founding a company that has privatized space travel speaks wonders to Musk’s ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, but one should question why it has become necessary for NASA to partner with private enterprises such as SpaceX in the first place.
Though many people may disagree, NASA can serve as a fundamentally important tool in developing scientific progress and innovation in this country. It is curious, then, why NASA’s budget has recently undergone major cuts. Ideally, there should be increased funding for NASA.
NASA’s budget is always subject to much debate. Generally, arguments take one of two sides. There are those who recognize NASA’s importance in a variety of scientific fields. Conversely, there are people who cite the financial cost of funding what they see as unnecessary exploration. Why waste money in space, they question, when we can use it on problems here at home?
While it is true that we have a multitude of problems in the United States that could perhaps benefit from money otherwise spent on NASA, the money going to NASA cannot be considered wasted. Though NASA’s 2011 budget of $18.5 billion was indeed a large sum of money, it only comprised .5 percent of the overall federal budget. In other words, NASA received half a cent of every dollar spent the federal government spent. For the benefit that we currently or may derive from NASA, .5 percent actually seems like an unjustifiably low proportion.
NASA deserves more funding because of the potential it has for stimulating progress and innovation. If NASA’s ability to take on new workers and fund new projects increased, there would be an expanded demand for scientists and engineers. More children would be inspired by NASA’s work and would be drawn toward studying math and science. And that is precisely what the United States needs. Many recent studies have indicated that U.S. schoolchildren are behind their foreign counterparts when it comes to knowledge of math and science. It seems, then, that creating a culture that more heavily promotes math and science is needed. NASA could ultimately serve as inspiration for those children through projects that publicly and tangibly demonstrate the possibilities that can arise from applications of science and engineering.
The United States would only benefit from an influx of highly science-literate people. With an increased number of scientifically minded individuals, the likelihood of significant innovations or improvements in technology also increases. If the U.S. is to keep its status as a major hub of innovation and intellectual cooperation, it needs to improve its number of homegrown scientists. Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist, professor and popularizer of science, posits that the United States’ scientific culture has become increasingly dependent on scientists from other countries. He explains that the U.S. is still the intellectual center that draws in scientists from around the world. But, since fewer of those scientists are Americans, a large percentage of U.S.-educated professionals return to their home nations. The United States, in an effort to increase the number of scientists who remain in the country, must motivate students to learn math and science. Increasing funding for NASA could help do this.
Granted, from a cost standpoint, private space exploration may in fact be cheaper than government-sponsored programs. Musk reports that SpaceX can launch a rocket into space for roughly an eighth of the cost of NASA. Nevertheless, private enterprises do not come with the same guarantee as NASA. When money is spent on NASA, the funds will be prioritized for research and development or other ways to improve our knowledge of space, and NASA has a history to prove its success. With a private company, the goals may not be as clear. Profit could easily overtake the acquiring of knowledge as the primary concern for a venture like SpaceX. In order to promote interest in science and engineering most effectively, more money should be spent on NASA. Something needs to inspire children to go into those fields. If NASA can do that even by a small amount, then increasing funding for NASA will definitely pay off in the long term.
Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.