Particle Physics, SciComm, Space, Spaceflight

Should We Go To Space?

If you were given the chance to go to space, would you? For many, including myself, it would be a truly amazing opportunity. But a question asked more rarely is: Should you?

In 2019, the US government gave NASA 21 and a half billion dollars to spend. Sounds like a lot of money. And in many people’s eyes, there are other causes far worthier of this money than going to space. It sounds frivolous when compared to the pressing matter of plastic polluting our oceans so much so that the pacific ocean garbage patch is three times the size of France, or malnutrition causing 45% of deaths in children under 5. Despite this, I think we should invest in big science projects, like space travel- and the reasons aren’t as heartless as you may think.

First of all, $21.5 billion sounds like a massive amount of money. And if considered in comparison to everyday sums, it is! But it is actually only 0.5% of the US governments annual spending, and since NASA’s creation, it has spent a total of $601 billion: less than the *annual* budget for their Department of Defense. Looking at the bigger picture is really important when understanding facts and figures across science, especially when there are loads of numbers thrown around on the news, in speeches, and across social media.

Although the UK weather may convince you otherwise, solar power is likely to become a key source of energy in the coming years, as we switch to more renewable resources. There’s no doubt of its importance. Dozens of organisations have been helping rural communities in developing countries access solar energy for heating and electricity.This, along with initiatives from tech giants such as Google, Amazon and SpaceX, can provide a higher quality of life, as well as internet access to the whole world. And this technology actually came from the space industry! Though NASA didn’t invent the Solar Cell, they continued to push for their development in the 70’s, when wider interest in them was waning. Scientists at NASA have also played a large role in making them cheaper and more efficient, especially for large scale solar farms. In fact, research into extreme temperature resistant materials for the space shuttle main engine has been used in creating a huge solar plant, that works by concentrating the light onto a single point, where the intense heat can turn a turbine. It has meant that 75,000 homes in Nevada are powered by clean, renewable energy! (Seeker, NASA)

Rows of industrial solar panels in foreground, reaching back towards snowy mountains in the background
High Altitude Solar Panels

Space travel has also resulted in HUGE developments for health and medicine. Software used for processing satellite pictures of both the earth and stars is now being used to identify and diagnose Alzheimer’s and possibly other diseases from MRI’s. And on the ISS,  over half of the experiments are related to human health, resulting in the development of vaccines, as well as treatments for osteoporosis, cancer and asthma to name but a few!

Another organisation that organises and invests in big science, this time quantum and particle physics, is CERN. Recently, they announced plans to build a new, larger particle accelerator, with an estimated price of £20 billion. This resulted in a fair amount of skepticism and debate, and as its possible lack of benefits is discussed, I think it is important to remember how useful it could be.

Without research into quantum physics by organisations such as cern, we would not have the silicon chips that power basically every new technological device. Ok, some people may say “but it’s the phones that are destroying us!”. Maybe that’s true, but it is thanks to this powerful mobile and satellite technology that people in remote areas have access to health advice via telemedicine streaming, and thousands of children can learn maths skills to use in their future, when otherwise they may not be able to access good teachers or secondary education. Oh, and not to mention the World Wide Web, which generates 2 trillion dollars each year, was developed by cern to share discoveries with other researchers! Going back to health and medicine, technologies first developed for particle physics research are now used to peer into the human body using PET scanners and MRI’s, drug development, and radiation therapy for tens of millions of cancer patients each year.

Back to space: NASA currently has 12 earth watch satellites orbiting the earth, transmitting information about the health of our planet, from temperature data to images of natural disasters! This has been providing freely available data since the 70’s, so that researchers, governments and pressure groups can use it to learn about our role in changing the planet, and to make decisions regarding the accelerating climate emergency. And this is, for me, NASA’s  main role today: to provide data so that those with power to make change happen, can do so, informed by real science!

Screenshot from EarthNow, featuring the globe earth with the path of orbiting satellites marked on
Earth Now

As well as this, private companies are beginning to play a big role in the industry. Partnerships with private companies like Space X and Boeing mean that funding is slightly less of a problem for the major government organisations, particularly for more fanciful projects, like going to the moon or mars, and results in the faster development of parts and projects! Already, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are nearing operation, which will allow private space travel (space holidays!) to become reality, at least for those who have a few 100,000 dollars to spare! Despite the price and environmental concerns associated with burning both fuel to launch, and the actual craft on re-entry, I think it will be a great opportunity to inspire the rich to use their assets for the good of the earth or humanity!

All of this sounds so big and exciting, that it is hard to imagine that NASA technology seriously affects you in your everyday life… but you’d be surprised at just how many NASA spinoff technologies you could find around your house!

  • Sunglasses have scratch proof, UV resistant lenses that were first developed as a spinoff of the coating on space helmet visors!
  • Wireless Headphones/Communication evolved from communications devices first used in the Apollo era!
  • Cordless Vacuums are another descendant of Apollo-era tech that resulted from a partnership with Black and Decker to develop longer lasting, battery operated tools to use on missions!
  • Memory Foam was first used in test pilot and astronaut flight seats to make the intense pressure slightly more comfortable!

The main argument against research, that’s aim is to help us settle on the moon or mars, and maintain our status as a space faring species, is that we ought to fix our own planet first. I agree, but it is likely that by investing in industries such as space research, we accidentally stumble across new tech that could just save the world! And, we will have a whole host of striking images to help convince people that a) the planet needs saving, and b) that it is worth it!

Apollo 8 earthrise: moon surface fills base of image, top half of earth can be seen in the distance, clouds and ocean blue can be clearly seen
Apollo 8 Earthrise- Stunning!

In my opinion, the reason big investments into science, like NASA and CERN, are shunned by the public is because of the lack of comprehensible science communication. I mean, just one quick YouTube search about cern results in hundreds of conspiracy videos. This has to change! So yes, if given the chance, we should go to space, because astronauts can be the best science communicators!

What do you think? Should NASA get more investment? What other science research would you like to see take off in the coming years? Would you go to space if you were given the chance? Let me know in the comments!


If you can’t trust an atom… trust in science!

☆it’s like magic, but it’s true whether you believe in it or not!☆

See you next time!



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