On 16th April 2014, Egypt launched its second Earth-observation satellite into a Low Earth Orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.
The 1050 kg satellite, inventively titled “EgyptSat 2” naturally drew a lot of heat from residents of the developing North African nation.
One common question was heard to echo throughout the various online forums and social media groups, and it is a question that is commonly asked of any attempt to venture into space- and not just from the financially less well off nations either.
“Why should we spend money on space research when we have so many problems that need to be fixed here on Earth first?”
While I can sympathize with the sentiment, especially when it is expressed by those who may have bigger personal problems (such as finding food, or clean water), I am first to point out the fact that this false dichotomy is nothing short of bullshit.
You see, there are not, and have never been, two connected pots labelled “feeding the poor” and “progress”. That is to say, never in the history of mankind has an increase in space expenditure EVER resulted in an increase in poverty.
To flip it over and put it another way, a decrease in space spending has never seen a corresponding decrease in national poverty either. Just look at America.
During the height of the Apollo development program, the U.S was spending 4.41% of its federal budget on space exploration (equivalent to just one penny out of every dollar). Fast forward to 2012 and that figure has dropped down to 0.48% of the federal budget (less than half a penny on the dollar).
That figure for 2012 translates into a budget of $18.7 billion dollars for NASA, compared to $$645.7 billion for the 2012 US defense budget.
To put it further into perspective, Americans spend $30 billion annually on dollar store purchases. I have never been inside of a dollar store, but if it is anything like the UK’s equivalent “Poundland”, that means that there are approximately 30 billion low-quality Allen key sets and broken bike locks haplessly lying under the beds and in boxes of the average American home. A chilling thought. To boggle your minds even further, the USA spends more on chewing gum per year than it does on manned space exploration.
But the focus of this article is not the American space program, or about humanity’s need for chintzy crap. The focus is on how space can feed the poor, save the world and more importantly, show that it is not just money well spent but money that MUST be spent.
According to G. Scott Hubbard, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Awesome. So if I give you 1 dollar, you will give me 8? That sounds like a bargain. Where do I sign? Of course it is not such a direct transaction in reality. The economic benefits come in the form of new industries and new inventions, of which NASA boasts over 2500 patents which are spin offs from the space program. These include smoke detectors, temper foam mattresses, deicers for aircraft (that stop you from crashing)…and a hell of a lot more. All of these devices require someone to manufacture them (creating more jobs) and customers to pay for them (more revenue). Contrary to popular belief, NASA did not invent Tang, although they did use it on the Gemini program. According to Buzz Aldrin, “Tang sucks”.
So, that is how the west has benefited. But how can these spin offs be applied to the developing world?
Precision farming is one direct application of space technology, which can literally feed the poor without a massive initial investment.
Precision combines GPS data with freely (or cheaply) available satellite data to show farmers which parts of their field require more water. Using near infrared (NIR) sensors, farmers can view damaged crops and can better utilize available resources in a more dynamic fashion.
For example, the Tamil Nadu Precision Farming Project in India has reported increases in yield of over 83% for carrots, 37.5% for cauliflowers and over 125% for maize crops. These are not insignificant numbers. Similarly, American studies on precision farming have shown an increase in yield by up to nearly 16% when used on corn crops.
The point of precision farming, from this article’s perspective is to show how space can be used to feed the poor and starving. Countries like India do not need to launch new satellites into orbit to use these services. The satellites are already up there, and for a small subscription fee, farmers can gain access to these technologies and techniques. Some farmers are combining the GPS data with the satellite images and feeding the info into driverless-tractor systems. This may seem like a crazy/luxurious thing to do, but when you spend 15 hours a day tilling your 10 square kilometers of maize fields, and the remainder of the day walking to collect clean water to keep your family alive, the time saved can be a godsend. In short, space is enabling a better quality of life, higher productivity and higher revenues- all for a very low initial investment.
Space IS expensive; let’s make no bones about that. But not every space mission involves going to the Moon. Many have humanitarian uses, and some of these technologies and areas of research not only help put food in people’s bellies but can literally save the world on an existential level.
Take an asteroid for example. We know they are out there. We know that they have struck before (dinosaurs). Until 2013, the threat was largely ignored by all but a few.
On February 15th 2013, a large meteor detonated over the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia. The firey deathball had a mass of up to 7700 metric tons, measured at 17 metres across and had the energy equivalent of 470 kilotons of TNT, or a small nuclear weapon. Over 1500 people required medical assistance, mostly from shattered glass that went flying as a result of the detonation. All of a sudden, the Hollywood staple of catastrophic destruction from above was no longer a fiction.
There are three things that made this event stand out are quite unique. Firstly, due to mass insurance scams, Russian drivers drive around with dashcams mounted in their vehicles. This provided previously unseen footage of what it looks like to come under fire from exploding space-rocks.
Secondly, at exactly the same time as the event, the United Nations were having a little meeting in Vienna on the topic of…asteroid threats. What a lucky coincidence. All of the most important policy makers were in one room just as the largest meteor since Tunguska detonated over Russia.
The final eye-opener came in the form asteroid 2012 DA14, which came within 17,000 miles of the planet’s atmosphere within 24 hours of the Chelyabinsk event- a whisker’s breadth in astronomical terms. It seemed that God, angry Buddha, or the universe (or whatever) had decided to throw everything at us in the space of a single day. We were caught with our pants down.
Needless to say, plans were drawn up very quickly indeed.
Within a matter of months the United States and Russia had teamed up against meteorites and other space threats, quickly drafting proposals to counter the threat.
Additionally, NASA received immediate funding for their ATLAS project (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System). It seems that nothing unites the policy makers and money people quite like being blind-sided from a meteorite. And blind-sided is the correct term- we know of the orbits of many asteroids within our solar system, but it is the ones that we can’t see that we should worry about. It is the ones that come from the direction of the Sun, which completely blind our sensors and telescopes which we really need to look out for. They really can’t be detected until just a few days, or even hours before they strike. And by that time, it really is too late. Not even an army of Bruce Willis clones can stop one of these badboys when they just decide to turn up on our doorstep.
Two things are certain in this situation, however. Firstly, we can not always rely on government agencies to protect us. Secondly, it is not a case of IF we suffer another asteroid strike, but WHEN. Statistically, it will happen, and will be be caught off guard again?
Not if the private sector has anything to do with it.
Enter Planetary Resources and the B612 Foundation. These private enterprises both have very different outlooks on how to deal with the threat of cosmic carnage.
The B612 Foundation, co-founded by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, plans to launch a private space telescope in order to detect these beasts as they approach from the Sun. They are focusing on detection, which is one half of the battle.
Planetary Resources on the other hand, not only want to detect rogue asteroids using a fleet of small space telescopes, but want to prospect them, and harvest them in-situ for their delicious PGMs (Platinum Group Metals) and that other scare space resource- water. Hence the name, Planetary resources.
This may seem like science fiction, but just look at who is backing this initiative. On the board of Planetary Resources we have Dr Peter Diamandis (founder of the X-Prize Foundation, which gave us the first commercial spaceflight), and Eric Anderson (founder of Space Adventures) and investing into this scheme we have Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, James Cameron and Ross Perot, Jr.(to name but a few). Planetary Resources has deep pockets, it would seem…and they want to make them deeper.
According to Diamandis, “the first trillionaires will make their fortunes in space”.
A platinum meteor the size of a tennis court can provide industry with more platinum than is available on Earth at this very moment. Given our reliance on this precious metal, especially in the electronics industry, one of these space-rocks could make somebody very rich indeed. And not only would it make someone very rich, but it has the added advantage of saving humanity’s collective ass at the same time.
With the imminent launch of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and the recent unveiling of SpaceX’s Dragon V2 spacecraft, the next decade is set to become an extremely exciting time for the private space sector.
We are seeing more and more examples of how space not only helps people on the ground, but how humanity can become extremely rich at the same time.
So the next time someone asks why we should invest money in space technology, you can put your hand on your heart and tell them with all honesty that space tech is not some foolish venture for rich nations (and individuals) but is the ONLY thing that will protect us from the inevitable doom of famine and inevitable extinction.
That’s got to be worth a penny from every tax dollar, right?