Space exploration fuels human curiosity, drives social advancement of civilization

Sure, space sounds cool: black holes and gravity waves, dark energy and time travel, it all sounds like it was taken out of a science fiction novel. But when our society faces issues ranging from economic stratification to gender discrimination, people view space research and exploration as a luxury rather than a priority. At Vassar College’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (VCSEDS), we don’t believe they should. Space exploration has a much deeper relevancy in our lives than we can fully comprehend.

While NASA is typically associated with astronauts, the International Space Station or Mars, it has assisted many industries through the development of low-cost computers, water filtration systems, cancer therapy, eye surgery, solar panels, MRI systems, hurricane forecasts and even an emergency system called SARSAT that has helped rescue over 30,000 lives since its inception (just to name a few). Additionally, space exploration not only excites innovation in preexisting markets, but creates entirely new industries, such as satellite technology or commercial space travel. So while a $150 billion space station or a $7 billion rocket system may sound like an imprudent investment, the economic dividends of space-related projects are much more tangible than many of us may be aware.

Space exploration is not just noteworthy for its economic returns. It also fosters international collaboration, especially through projects such as the International Space Station (ISS), which is supported by 25 different countries spread across North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Even in the midst of diplomatic tensions between Russia and the US, Russian and American astronauts continue to collaborate on ISS missions. Likewise, NASA’s newest telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), has been developed through the collaboration of NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the European Space Agency (ESA) and private companies such as Northrop Grumman and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

But I believe space exploration’s greatest strength is that it appeals to our innate desire for discovery. When I met Nobel Laureate John Mather at NASA this past summer, he asked me, “So what unanswerable question must you solve this summer?” It’s this mentality in the space industry that makes it something more than luxury. When society becomes stagnated by socioeconomic tensions and political deadlock, we should embrace the industries that demand us to answer the insolvable, that demand ingenuity and persistence, that demand diversity and collaboration. These are the ingredients of progress. Space exploration should not be viewed as just some idyllic side adventure in our pursuit of knowledge; we must recognize it as a driving force of the cultural, social and economic advancement of civilization.

So what is the space industry doing here and now to prepare us for future exploration? By the end of next year, NASA is looking to launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as the successor of the Hubble Telescope (which takes all of the cool pictures you’ve probably seen of space). JWST will allow us to look at the Universe’s first galaxies, giving us further insight into the evolution and formation of the early Universe. NASA is also currently developing the Space Launch System—a heavy lift rocket that will be the basis for space missions beyond Low Earth Orbit. This system will be the cornerstone for both human and robotic expeditions to planets and asteroids in our Solar System and is an important first step in colonizing space. The projected launch of the first unmanned SLS test flight is scheduled for November 2018, a date that is not too far into the future.

Meanwhile, private companies are also increasing their involvement in human space exploration as Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada compete for NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract. Rumors suggest that NASA will announce the winner at the beginning of this month. This contract will not only continue to drive the development of commercial space flight as private companies inspire competitive innovation, but will also promote the growing accessibility of future space travel. But NASA remains restricted by underwhelming government funding, and both private and government affiliations are still searching for more engineers, scientists and even economists to lead their space exploration projects. To resolve these issues, we must continue educating ourselves about space and its development. The efficiency and efficacy of space exploration is dependent upon our involvement as a society, and it is important that we all participate in how we invest in our future.

So what unanswerable question do you think we must solve next?

If you are interested in further discussing space exploration and development, join Vassar College’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (VCSEDS) by contacting us at vcseds@gmail.com. You can also follow us on our blog, where we post weekly updates concerning space policy and technological advancements at vcseds.wordpress.com. Have any questions about space? Well we’d be happy to answer them! Either post them on our blog on the “ASK SEDS” page or email your question to us at vcseds@gmail.com.

-Zach Nasipak ’15

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