Monday, February 13, 2012

NASA: Dreaming About Tomorrow

                  The city lights have erased the stars.  Busy lives have no time to stop and watch the night sky.  Space has become just another fixture; a kitchen light no one notices.  Many have grown bored, not even aware of how much more we have to learn.  If new knowledge surfaces constantly on Earth, which we have thoroughly explored, imagine how much unexplored territory has to teach us. 

From Michael H. Benton's Blog
                  Following the Apollo era in the 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA for short) has continued to lose funding from the United States government.  Although the actual amount of money has increased, the percentage of the US budget going towards NASA has decreased greatly.  From the years 1963 to 1969, NASA held over 2 percent of the federal budget each year, with the highest point at 4.41 percent in 1966.  In the year 2012 17.8 billion dollars is being spent on NASA, which equates to .48 percent of the budget; the lowest the percentage has been since 1959.

From Joe Lewis's Blog
                 To put things into perspective, I will parallel government spending on NASA to spending of the Department of Defense.  In comparison to how much is being spent on military actions, the cost of NASA is miniscule.  The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost 10.5 billion dollars per month.  This equates to 126 billion dollars every year.  This means that every year, more than seven times the amount of NASA’s budget is spent on the wars overseas.  And according to Joe Lewis, “This does not include the various costs of running our military, which appear in the Defense line.”  The second Iraq war alone may have cost up to one trillion dollars in direct costs to the US.  It is baffling to me that so much more of the US budget is spent on warfare than on technological advancements and furthering our knowledge of science and the universe.
                 Recent cuts to NASA’s budget have also affected America’s relationship with other nations.  NASA has had to scrap two flagship missions planned with the European Space Agency due to a lack of funds (Wanjek).  The first is the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) and the second is the International X-ray Observatory (IXO).  The ESA had already laid down half of the cost of these missions, and now that NASA has pulled out, “it is now scrambling for a plan B, while its trust in NASA has plummeted” (Wanjek).  This understandably poses a problem for America’s reputation, as space programs in other countries may now have reason to doubt NASA’s reliability.

                The video above shows Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, speaking at the University of Buffalo.  Tyson is responding to a student’s question, “Would you care to discuss the recent changes to the nation’s space program?”  Tyson comes back to this with an inspiring and stimulating response.  He explains what NASA means to us as a nation, and how important it is.  In his words, “The most powerful agency on the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it needs to be doing.” I strongly agree with Tyson that funding to NASA should not be cut, it should be raised.  In cutting funding and not realizing the importance of NASA, our nation as a whole has stopped dreaming about tomorrow.
                Why should the US government fund NASA?  There are many arguments claiming that they should not.  Some people believe that the money spent on NASA should be put to “better” use, such as helping the nation’s poor and paying off the national debt.  As I demonstrated before, the NASA budget is very small fraction of the US budget.  I do not think that people realize just how small the number is, and this misperception may account for some of the negativity.  Another argument made is that NASA does not do anything beneficial for society.  However, this claim is profoundly unjust, as the benefits of NASA can be seen in our everyday lives and throughout the world.
                NASA has also developed several helpful, and occasionally life-saving, inventions.  Among these inventions are memory foam, shoe insoles, cordless power tools, water filters, lifeshears, cochlear implants, and the insulin pump.   Each of these inventions was originally created to assist space exploration, but there is no doubt that each has made countless more peoples’ lives much easier.  For example, water filters were initially meant to provide astronauts with clean water in space.  The water filters many people use today were adapted from the technology used by NASA.  Similarly, memory foam was designed to cushion aircraft seats in order to ensure safer landings.  NASA has made many more useful technological advancements and discoveries other than these.
The NASA Biocapsule.  Picture from Gizmodo
                Perhaps one of the most intriguing and remarkable of these breakthroughs is what is known as the “NASA Biocapsule.”  While on missions in space, astronauts do not have access to doctors.  Therefore, if they were to fall ill, it would be very difficult for them to receive treatment, which could pose serious problems for the mission and the astronaut’s health.  This was the original incentive behind the Biocapsule.  The Biocapsule is a device made out of carbon nanotubes which is implanted under a person’s skin.  When implanted, this device will basically be able to diagnose and treat a person as problems arise, before the person is even aware of any problems.  Gizmodo describes a scenario in which Biocapsules would be advantageous:

“Picture this: An astronaut is going to Mars. The round-trip journey will take between two and three years. During that time, the astronaut will not have access to a doctor, and there's a lot that can go wrong with the human body in space. So, prior to launch, the astronaut is implanted with a number of NASA Biocapsules. A very small incision is made in the astronaut's skin for each Biocapsule (probably in the thigh), which is implanted subcutaneously. It's outpatient surgery that requires only local anesthetic and a stitch or two to close the wound. But after it's complete, the astronaut's body is equipped to deal with a whole host of problems on its own.”
                  The NASA Biocapsule can not only be used by astronauts, but it can also be used by people here on Earth.  That is why this device is a remarkable breakthrough in medicine.  The Biocapsule can serve many different purposes on Earth, including delivering insulin to diabetics.  This would make the lives of diabetics much easier, as they would no longer have to worry about watching their blood sugar levels or remember to bring insulin with them everywhere they go.  The Biocapsule would take care of these things.  The Biocapsule would also greatly improve the lives of cancer patients.  A Biocapsule could be implanted very close to a patient’s tumor, where it could deliver chemotherapy directly to the area.  These are only a couple of the potential benefits of the NASA Biocapsule.
                  It is obvious that people do not realize just how little of the federal budget is spent on NASA.  It is a tiny fraction of the budget, and now is not the time to cut more funding.  They are a necessary organization because they constantly produce knowledge and technology that benefit society, and will help secure our future.  Any claim that NASA does not do anything to help civilization is outrageous, as NASA’s accomplishments can be seen everywhere.  I believe that if anything, NASA’s budget should be raised.

Works Cited

Wanjek, Christopher. "The Death Of Astrophysics?." Mercury 40.3 (2011): 11. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.