I was recently asked this question, how do space activities contribute to our daily lives? I must confess that I have been asked it many times previously. Virtually every time this question is asked, however, it is because the person asking it usually is seeking a set of talking points supporting greater expenditures for space activities. Often that is manifested in a desire to articulate an expansive vision for human space exploration. Unfortunately, that is a difficult case to make. There are very real and important reasons to undertake space activities; but at least thus far very few of them require humans flying into space.
Space-based assets are critical to many aspects of modern life on Earth. Satellites in Earth orbit are also critical to supporting the infrastructure of all manner of activities on Earth, including virtually every aspect of global telecommunications. There is also a significant scientific return from space activities.
The returns on investment in space, which are only now beginning to be realized, involve the geophysical inventory of a planet and the exploitation of regions beyond for all types of ventures that have changed our lives. Remote sensing satellites have made life strikingly different from what it was as little as a generation ago as satellite images of weather patterns enable meteorologists to forecast storms, as communications satellites have transformed our ability to move information, and as global positioning satellites are starting to provide instantaneous reliable geographical information.
I want also to say something about the so-called “spinoff” argument. Much has been made over the years of what NASA calls “spinoffs,” commercial products that had at least some of their origins as a result of spaceflight-related research. Most years the agency puts out a book describing some of the most spectacular, and they range from laser angioplasty to body imaging for medical diagnostics to imaging and data analysis technology. NASA has spent a lot of time and trouble trying to track these benefits of the space program in an effort to justify its existence, and the NASA History Office has more than five linear feet of documentation relative to the subject. With the caveat that technology transfer is an exceptionally complex subject that is almost impossible to track properly, these various studies show much about the prospect of technological lagniappe from the U.S. effort to fly in space.
Whether good or bad, no amount of cost-benefit analysis, which the spinoff argument essentially makes, can sustain NASA’s historic level of funding. Spinoffs, by definition, are unintended consequences of another activity. They might be highly useful and lucrative consequences, but they are nonetheless unintended. Trying to defend a program based on unintended consequences seems to me to be a poor argument.
More useful, I would assert is a counterfactual question. How would life today be different if there were no space program? There can be no fully satisfactory answer to that question. One person’s vision is another’s belly-laugh. But perhaps we can begin with the elimination of the microchip. Whether our life would be significantly different is problematic, but I think many of the high technology capabilities we enjoy—starting with biomedical diagnostics and related technologies and ending with telecommunications breakthroughs—might well have followed different courses and perhaps have lagged beyond their present breakneck pace as a result.
Some of us might well think that a positive development, though I doubt most would want to go back to typewriters, problematic global communication, etc. The point, of course, is that the past did not have to develop in the way that it did, and that I believe there is evidence to suggest that the space program pushed technological development in certain paths that might have not been followed otherwise, both for good and ill.
While the proponents of spaceflight might celebrate “spinoffs” of technology as emblematic of “good things” accruing to those civilizations that undertake spaceflight, there is one major outgrowth of spaceflight that cannot be denied, national security space operations. This is certainly the case with the United States and the national defense apparatus could not function without surveillance, communications, weather, early warning, and navigation satellites, to name just a few.
Most important of all, especially during the Cold War but also during and since the 1990s, the technology of spaceflight made possible something never envisioned before in human history, the capability to undertake surveillance on all manner of actors—including state, non-state, individuals, ethnic or racial groups, and organizations. Even before the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 both the United States and the Soviet Union realized the potential offered by reconnaissance and other types of overhead surveillance.
At the same time a little-known principal critical to the safety of the entire world also resulted from Sputnik. The Soviet satellite established the overwhelmingly critical principal of overflight in space, the ability to send reconnaissance and other satellites over a foreign nation for any non-lethal purpose free from the fear of attack on them. Orbiting reconnaissance satellites served more than virtually any other technology as a stabilizing influence in the Cold War. The ability to see what rivals were doing helped to ensure that national leaders on both sides did not make decisions based on faulty intelligence.
Both the Americans and the Soviets benefited from this new reconnaissance satellite capability, and the world was at least marginally safer as a result, but it might have turned out another way. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not overestimate the importance of this technology in 1967 when he said that the U.S. probably spent between $35 and $40 billion on it, but “If nothing else had come of it except the knowledge we’ve gained from space photography, it would be worth 10 times what the whole program has cost.”
Satellites for commercial, national security, and scientific purposes are enormously significant reasons for undertaking space activities and have restructured American society since the 1950s. The one area that has not fundamentally reshaped society is human spaceflight. That is not to say this will not have a major impact into the future, but in so many ways the human part of the U.S. space program is the least compelling of any aspect of space operations. I’d like to see that change. We’ll see. I welcome anyone’s thoughts on this issue. What am I missing?