Why go where no one has gone before

“Every vision is a joke until the first man [or woman] accomplishes it” – Robert H. Goddard

Shuttle launches are a great opportunity to tout my science nerd flag. What other event gets so much of the nation to pay attention to an amazing feat of science?
STS-134 Endeavour Launch (201105160002HQ)

Later in this blog post I will present to you a bit of NASA research tangentially related to my own research.

It is a very sad to think that there is just one more shuttle launch left. But then the next question is what is next for the space program? Especially now that we are in the throws of a budget debate, how much of federal funding actually goes to the space program?

Space expenditures are actually quite minimal in comparison to defense spending. In the President’s FY 2012 budget, NASA has requested a total of about 18.7 billion (relatively flat according to Chairman Wolf). For perspective, the Department of Defense has requested 670.9 billion.

Nonetheless we are in difficult economic times and the questions that are being asked is not quite “how much”? but “why”? Because if we have the motivation, we can get anything done within a budget.

The biggest question that surrounds space policy are the rationale for such a scientific endeavor in which the benefits are for the most part taken on faith. The rationale has evolved significantly since its inception in 1958. However, because it was born out of a desire for national security, it might have prevented it from emphasizing scientific exploration or commercial development. And the question is now, with military rationale is less of an emphasis, can economic competitiveness and civilian space be enough to continue to drive the space program?

Yet, one of my favorite rationale that perhaps is not as prevalent in the public’s view as civilian space flight, are the scientific advances that have succeeded as a result of our desire for space.

aerogelcrayons

Blue Hazy Material is a Aerogel

One such advancement I see potential in is the commercialization of Aerogel.

Aerogel is the blue hazy material, in the image, that is holding up the crayons and keeping them from melting.  This material is insulating the Mars Rover keeping it warm, and was the only material that could capture interstellar dust at the high speeds Stardust would be traveling. What I believe to be most exciting, is that Stardust was able to capture the amino acid glycine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins that carry out important functions in our bodies! Indicating that perhaps there are important pre-biotic molecules in space!

But why should you care about this material? It is easy to support the space program that offers protection and national security or that satisfy the human desire for exploring the unknown (both can be categorized as intangible benefits). Can we care just as much about the economic benefit (perhaps a more tangible benefit?) of a material that NASA used that is as light as air (as it is 99.8% air), less dense than glass, and is a good insulator?  If NASA or the private sector can take this material and continue to do innovative research, we could figure out how to make this material cheap and transparent, for insulated windows. Then this material would be an invaluable contribution to our push to improve energy efficiency.

This is just a very very very tiny snippet of why we need the space program. And it is just the science exploration rationale. I have not yet gone into rationale such as the military applications, satisfying human destiny and commercial/satellite applications. Dr. J.M. Logsdon puts it best:

“Is travel beyond Earth orbit the only sustainable rationale for human space flight? How widely shared is the belief that human travel to other destinations in the solar system…is a high priority societal goal? If [these questions] are answered well, the 21st century could see the full realization of both the practical and inspirational potentials of space.”

References:
Roger Handberg, “Rationales of the Space Program” in Eligar Sadeh, Space Politics and Policy (2002)
John M. Logsdon, “Which Direction in Space?” Space Policy, May 2005
David A. Mindell, et al, “The Future of Human Spaceflight: Objectives and Policy Implications in a Global Context,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2009

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One response to “Why go where no one has gone before”

  1. STEM_Wonk says :

    For those of you who are chemists and perhaps know about the concept of chirality: a curious and unfortunate result of finding glycine is that it cannot tell us if space has a handedness like life here on earth. glycine is the one amino acid that does not have a “stereocenter” so that it does not have a R or L handed version.

    If you are more curious about this concept of chirality, there is a great Radiolab podcast about symmetry, chemistry, and chirality: http://www.radiolab.org/2011/apr/18/.

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