The Case for Space Exploration


Last week I went to the cinema to see the Martian, where Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on the planet Mars, in the near future.
I am highlighting the near future term because it is simply unlikely given the current circumstances that humans will be on Mars very soon, within a short time as the definition of near future requires.
Maybe you remember the TV series Space 1999 – I was quite fond of it.


What the future used to look like in 1975. 

Alas, no such thing happened.
Nowadays, it is even worse: there is simply no more appetite for space exploration for many reasons like:

  • There is no more technological contest like during the Cold War – the US won
  • Space exploration appears dangerous – deaths have big media coverage. This is despite the US having lost a mere 40 people in 60 years. Malaria kills 700,000 a year!
  • Space exploration takes time: from planning a mission to executing, 10-20 years can pass (in politician language: “too far away to be re-elected on this”)
  • Space exploration seems like a high spending item today with no visible return on investment for many years or decades (in politician language: “it will not necessarily help me get re-elected”)

NASA's New ShuttleThankfully dreaming remains free

One should keep in mind that space exploration is an investment today to generate innovations that will improve growth and create wealth in the future.

I could write pages about the key inventions of the space programme (CAT Scans, LEDs, lubricants…) but it is easier to think about my everyday life.
I sleep on a memory foam mattress (invented to cushion space suits), I wear glasses which have a scratch resistant coating (invented to solidify astronauts helmets), I use a Brita filter – invented by Nasa to recycle water in the space stations…
This wikipedia link has many more items.

But space exploration also gave us some cooler stuff. Engineer Lonnie Johnson was looking for a way to create a heat pump using water rather than Freon, a harmful gas.
Little did he know that a test in his bathroom would create this:

supersoakerkid-e1424912842886The Super Soaker, a heat pump masquerading as a toy

Why is space exploration so creative? 
There is one main reason: because it is very hard and unforgiving.
Space is a merciless environment, where approximations cannot happen. This requires the proverbial “out-of-the-box” thinking.
The next big challenge is human space exploration is landing humans on Mars. It is an immensely complex endeavour which will generate many innovations such as:

  • On Mars, humans will need tools. Bringing them is costly because they are heavy so better fabricate them arrived on the planet. They will probably have to be 3D printed from local materials – today 3D printing is in infancy, it lacks in particular the flexibility to use random materials
  • Energy will be rationed: how to create solar panels from local materials, create further energy savings devices, improve batteries or even build batteries from Martian materials
  • Growing food on Mars: if we can grow something on an alien planet, we could improve agriculture anywhere on Earth
  • Construction: how to create a habitat fast, cheap, insulated, with local materials? Maybe some robots will be designed so that they can dig themselves autonomously the foundations, prepare some concrete and create the home sweet home for our explorers. In turn, these techniques could be employed on Earth to slash construction costs. Cheap house prices anyone?

These solutions will create new products which in turn will be ubiquitous in our daily lives years after. Obviously we need to invest now to reap these benefits.


“With all the people starving, you want to spend billions for your toys”
This is the kind of comments I read regularly. So let’s put them in perspective.
In 2015, the global spending on space agencies was around $45bn, or 0.06% of world’s GDP.
However, at the same time will also be spent:

  • US spending at fast foods: $100bn – 2x more
  • US spending on clothing: $250bn – 5.5x more
  • Fossil fuel subsidies: $550bn – 12x more

I am afraid these critics need math lessons.

jfk-moonClick here to watch John Kennedy’s moon speech

Inspiration from a great man
As a conclusion, I am quoting John Kennedy’s moon speech:
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

This was pronounced in 1962, 53 years ago.
Increasing space exploration budgets is urgent.

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