Tag Archives: Science

Our Pale Blue Dot

When I want to get to know people, one of the first questions I ask them is, “What is the best job in the world?” The answers I have gotten have run the gambit from English teacher to Playboy photographer, but they all provide me with some level of insight into the persons mind.

When I was six, I would have told you that I wanted to be an astronaut. I still love space and the idea of exploring it, but since then I have had to come to the sad conclusion that I will likely never lead an expedition into space(let’s not talk about that anymore, I may cry). My answer now is that I want to work for and eventually become the Administrator of NASA.

Who wouldn’t want to help NASAs scientists and engineers inspire not only Americans, but an entire planet of citizens towards new amazing frontiers? After all, NASA has put a man on the moon, landed on Mars with three rovers, helped establish an international space station, and photographed our galaxy from near and far. Funding NASA has also proven to be good business.

Economic studies of NASA’s spin off technologies have shown a long term rate of return between seven and 23 times the original investment. Simplified, this means that for every dollar invested in NASA, the economy will gain between seven and 23 dollars in both scientific and everyday technology that we would have otherwise not produced. If that return on investment could be directly recognized, there would be hedge fund managers lined up with suitcases of money ready to throw it at anything NASA deemed worthy.

Funding something that is profoundly misunderstood is obviously a challenge though. In a Dec. 2008 survey performed by the California Academy of Sciences, only 21% of adults were able to answer these three questions correctly:

– How long does it take for the Earth to revolve around the Sun?(One year, 53% correct)

– Yes or no, did the earliest humans and dinosaurs exist during the same time period?(No, 59% correct)

– Approximately how much of the earth is covered with water?(65-75% was considered an acceptable answer, 47% correct)

How can we reasonably expect, with only one fifth of adults being able to answer three basic science related questions, that Americans will understand the benefits of spending $2.5 billion on a rover to land on Mars, a planet that is at first glance literally a wasteland?

At roughly 1/125th of the US budget, NASA’s budget for 2013 comes to $17.8b, a number that may be hard to put into perspective with the media constantly sometimes representing the $700b bailout as a necessity, and the $800,000 GSA Las Vegas retreat as a catastrophe of our time. Here is an amazing graphic from the NYTimes may help to illustrate the point. NASA’s budget is just a part of that fourth box from the left on the bottom(General Sciences).

Put another way, the ~$1b lost in the NASA budget between 2010 and 2012 is roughly 4% of the increase in the US military budget over the same time, despite the fact that the United States pulled the rest of its troops from Iraq during that time, thereby ending a war. In fact, the $23.8b increase could have covered NASA’s entire budget.

“There has never been a greater need for investment in scientific research and education, many of the most pressing issues of our time—from global climate change to resource management and disease—can only be addressed with the help of science.” – Cal. Academy of Sciences Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington.

Science will continue to be one of the most important area of study if the United States wants to be competitive in a world market, and we must not only keep funding it, but add to their budget which will add to our accomplishments. NASA’s advances in the scientific community are still among the most impressive and important. Not only are their efforts focused on solar energy(climate change), water purification(resource management), and pollution capturing technology(disease) but not two months ago, after sending a spacecraft ~145 million miles, they plummeted at 13,000 mph through the atmosphere and egg dropped a 2,000 pound rover from a hovering sky crane onto a martian surface.

Carl Sagan once said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” He was right, and in the future as NASA asks for money claiming that they can bring cameras and rovers and space ships and people to extraordinary places, we need to fund them, because their evidence is a list of extraordinary and overwhelming accomplishments.