Space is not a luxury anymore

Back on 5th November India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) lifted-off from the First Launch Pad at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. This was India's first inter-planetary mission and the successful launch and subsequent orbital manoeuvres were a great acheivement with worldwide coverage.

In the coverage I was disappointed by a minority of commentators who seemed to criticise the very existence of an Indian space programme. Their complaints mostly espoused the view that "space" was a waste of money when there were other issues such as health, education and poverty to worry about first (implying there is no poverty in Britain/US or that we also shouldn't be investing in "space"). The complaints often mentioned the fact that Britain provides financial aid to India (previously £227m per year although that is going to zero by 2015*) and the implication was that this was being squandered on "space" and should be better spent "on the ground". I can see where that view of space comes from but it is about half a century out-of-date.

In the Space Race, manned space programmes were done by rich and/or powerful nations and, in no small part, served the purpose of national chest-beating. That was 50 years ago. Back then it was eye-wateringly expensive to go to space (particularly with people) but things have changed a lot. Technology has developed. Expertise has spread. The cost has reduced. Space is now an integral part of our day-to-day lives and it is surprising how many people take that for granted or aren't even aware of it. With CubeSats and picosats even tiny groups funded via KickStarter can access space for tens of thousands of dollars.

From Earth-observation satellites to communication satellites, unmanned space programmes improve our lives in many ways. Their existence has contributed to: weather prediction; improving agricultural yeilds; locating oil slicks & bush fires; providing accurate positioning for taxis, ambulances, ships and planes; monitoring air pollution and UV radiation; assessing the risk of floods/storms/monsoons/earthquakes/volcanic eruptions; helping with disaster response; providing communications to remote areas; providing accurate mapping; landing planes in poor weather conditions (there was a test in 2011); producing risk maps for communicable diseases; medical diagnosis and treatment devices; remote surgery (will be particularly useful in remote areas); optimizing sustainable forestry; monitoring the effects of changing climate; warning ships about ice bergs; forecasting where fish can be caught by fishermen; providing TV entertainment; providing telephone links. Space R&D also has a positive impact on economies (it is thought that NASA benefits the US economy by 7 dollars for every dollar spent on it) and developing your own launch capabilities can lead to income from launching commercial satellites. The money spent on "space" actually pays for materials and wages down here on Earth.

An unmanned mission to Mars obviously doesn't produce many of the practical benefits that Earth observation does. Despite that, it does develop huge amounts of local experitise in complex technologies, processes and research. It provides a significant amount of inspiration to young people who may decide to go on to become the future engineers and scientists. Having "local" jobs can reduce "brain-drain" to richer countries. In addition it is shown that "blue skies" (or "red skies" in this case) research spending can produce many unexpected spin-offs and spur economic growth because you allow people to explore what inspires them rather than what you think will have a guaranteed short-term benefit. It shouldn't only be rich nations that invest in research and take the rewards that brings.

MOM itself was built for around USD 70m (a large fraction of which seems to be for ground-based infrastructure upgrades that will be re-used). That is incredibly cheap for a mission to another planet and, for context, is half the amount Real Madrid paid for Gareth Bale (USD 140m). Just think about that for a moment. Real Madrid could have bought a less good player and explored Mars!

In the 21st century space is no longer a "luxury" for the richest nations. Far from being a flagrant use of money - such as a Ugandan president using aid money to upgrade a Gulfstream jet - national and commerical space programmes directly and indirectly benefit hundreds of millions of people every day. Having a space programme should help India's development economically and technologically. It should also be able to improve the health and lives of the poorest. Let's stop using the narrative that space should only be for the rich. This is not your grandparents's space programme: it's the 21st century.

* Of course, in the past, the British Empire took vast wealth from India so portraying the UK as being taken-for-a-ride is hard to justify. Obviously, corruption in the use of aid money should be criticised but I'm not aware of evidence of that in this case.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 03rd Dec 2013 (16:04 GMT) | Permalink
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