Spaced Out

In the late months of 2014, human space exploration had a rough week—one dead, one critically injured, and two spacecraft wrecked. A lot of commentators wrote about the importance of the space program in terms of jobs, new technologies, and satisfying the human need for exploration and discovery. On the other side, the haters didn’t say much other than private enterprise should stay out space. Neither of these two setbacks was big enough to support the narrative arguing against space exploration. But silently, I’m sure, many nodded their heads in approval. My favorite misinformed line against space exploration is, “The only things that have come out of the space program are Teflon and Tang.” I don’t remember who said that, and I doubt that he wants me to remind anyone he said it. Besides the fact that hundreds of thousands of products, technologies, and procedures have come out of human space programs, neither Teflon nor Tang are among them. Tang was developed for the military and Teflon was an accident. As for the incredible list of benefits from space technology, one can peruse NASA’s web site or the U.S. Space Foundation’s web site for them. Don’t take my word for it. The truth is out there.

My current boss once told me about dating a NASA engineer and how she was not impressed, much to his dismay. “That money should have been used for all of the problems we have here at home,” she said. It is hard to answer such short-sightedness in fifty words or less. I have found that bosses tend to get irritated by long lectures about the error of their thinking. Instead, I answered with something innocuous that signaled my disagreement and then let it go. It bothers me that something so important is not be more easily defended. I wanted a bumper sticker retort along the lines of: “Newton said it, I tested it, that settles it.”

Sure, I could have pointed out how spacecraft have helped increase crop yields and how they have helped poor people in Africa find fresh water or hundreds of other examples. But considering that the future of mankind lies in leaving this planet eventually (barring the return of Jesus, the 12th Inman, or Blackbeard, of course), a 20% increase in wheat yield seems insubstantial. I feel that way even though there is more than a passing resemblance between a grain silo and a Saturn five rocket.

I was revisiting this problem during a recent visit to the dermatologist. Like many fair skinned Baby Boomers, I have to have precancerous growths removed from my face and body on a regular basis. When Boomers were growing up, mothers slathered baby oil on their kids and sent them out to the pool to sizzle like hush puppies at a catfish fry. So now we get liquid nitrogen sprayed on us like it’s window cleaner. And that reminded me that spray cans from the fifties and sixties contributed to ozone depletion and rising skin cancer rates.

Perhaps defenders of space exploration should talk about what life would be like if we hadn’t gone into space. Forget the fact that weather predictions would suck and many people would die from storms and hurricanes. How many people would die if we didn’t know the ozone layer existed? Imagine if we had never discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), “a miracle chemical,” were destroying the layer of the atmosphere that filters the ultraviolet rays that cause melanoma. The same solar radiation that prevented life from being able to move from the sea to the land for billions of years would be increasing at faster and faster rates as the ozone layer disappeared, gobbled up by CFCs acting like a cosmic Pacman. How long before all life on land became impossible?

One thing scientists from that era were good at was measuring radiation. They would probably be able to make the connection between the melanoma epidemic and rising radiation rates. People could stay indoors more or cover themselves in zinc or some other sun block. But what would protect our crops and farm animals? Ultimately, without space technology, scientists never would have been able to do anything about the radiation. All land life would die from cancer or starvation. The ozone layer was discovered and saved because of space exploration. Once the problem was discovered, nations and corporations worked together to drastically reduce free floating CFCs, thus allowing the ozone layer to stabilize and hopefully repair itself.

Without spacecraft, humans would have been reduced to the same helpless response as they have had during past disasters and epidemics: prayer, finger-pointing, and migration. We know how well prayer and finger pointing would work in restoring the ozone, but where would people migrate to when the only refuge from the killer radiation is under the sea? All land-based life, plants, and animals alike owe their continued existence to the space program. How do we create a meme for that? The best I can do is: “NASA: Saving our asses from cancer since 1970.” And that’s way too lame and vulgar for such an important enterprise. I hope young people can do better. I really do. Because our future is too important to leave to the Luddites who are eager for humans to die off. Heaven really can wait.