We space exploration fans and practitioners live in heady times! But I’m going to take a step back from all the SpaceXes and KickSats of the moment to do some philosophizing. Let’s start with the adage that the military is always fighting the last war: I think the saying may be true of science and space exploration advocates, too. Just hold that thought…
Over the last several weeks, I have been enjoying the “Cosmos” reboot. One of the justifications put forward for the show is the need to inspire a new generation to pursue scientific and technical careers, as Carl Sagan’s original did in the early 1980s. Airing prominently in support of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is a Boeing advertisement, perhaps suggesting a career path to those young Americans inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the show proper. It portrays engineers hard at work building – among other key Boeing-associated products – communications satellites, rockets, and solar panels. As the music crescendos, it displays footage of the International Space Station while the narrator declares that Boeing engineers have built “something the whole world can share.” The way the ad spot is cut, one might almost get the impression that the aerospace giant puts forth equal effort – and promises equal opportunities – in civil space exploration as it does in the areas of military aerospace and commercial aviation.
There’s a problem with STEM (that’s “science, technology, engineering, and math”) in the United States, but this “STEM crisis” isn’t really what it’s made out to be. There’s not really a shortage of STEM graduates. There’s a shortage of jobs for STEM graduates. This fact raises a question: suppose “Cosmos” inspires a large number of young Americans. Suppose it makes them want to learn the fundamental science underpinning the physical processes of the universe. Suppose it encourages their passion to build space telescopes and Mars rovers. Suppose it pushes them to wonder if there is alien life on Europa, or Enceladus, or an exoplanet. What do the newly minted young engineers and scientists go on to do?
The things we value as a country, and how much we value them, are effectively determined by the budgets set in Congress. In 2013, Congress spent about $63 billion on science and technology research of any kind. Yet the Department of Defense gets ten times that amount, and about 25 times that dollar value goes toward nondiscretionary entitlements. On top of that, over half of what little federal R&D funding there is goes toward defense programs (which means the fruits of that R&D don’t really percolate out into wider society). NASA does everything that it does on a paltry $18 billion dollars annually – about half a percent of the federal budget.
The message is clear: our country values keeping its social obligations. Fine, good. But the next thing on our national priority list is defense. (And, of course, much of our defense policy is based around big-ticket systems fighting a Cold War that ended when our adversary ceased to exist almost a quarter-century ago. As that adage goes…) As for research and development, fundamental science, medical advancements, or space exploration…well, according to the money, our country barely cares about these things at all in comparison. As a result, some of the most secure opportunities available to STEM graduates are in military-related positions – contrary to what that Boeing advertisement suggests.
This situation is extremely sad and problematic, both for our young engineers and scientists and for the United States as a whole. And it suggests to me that the best target of science advocacy should not be the young Americans working their way up through school. It should be Congress.
Private companies don’t produce fundamental innovation without a clear financial incentive. They don’t do basic science research, and they hesitate to invest in product development that stretches beyond the next quarter, let alone the next fiscal year. We can’t rely on private enterprise for awe-inspiring scientific and engineering feats. Most of the really blockbuster stuff – the continental discoveries and global circumnavigations and Hoover dams and Moon landings and Saturn probes – comes from governments. Not just any government fits the bill, either: only those that take the long view engage in such risky and rewarding activities. Historically, the United States federal government has been an incredible innovator. NASA is an exemplary contributor, holding 1 in 1000 US patents! (And that’s not even mentioning the tangible or intangible economic benefits.) Lest one think that academia will step in on its own to provide the fundamental research, consider that government grants support the scientists in academic institutions. We need the government to be doing this stuff.
Basic research, innovation, and exploration is potent, inspiring stuff. With their ad spot accompanying “Cosmos,” Boeing demonstrated that they have a strong grasp of this concept: giving the Space Station top billing among their projects is a sure way to tug on the heartstrings of future-minded young people. (They’re not the only “Cosmos” advertiser to capitalize on the excitement of space exploration, either.) But in a time when our Congressional leaders simultaneously don’t seem to care about science and lack the courage to close even the unneeded military bases, there’s very little chance that a young engineer gets to work on space exploration. Sadly, one probable outcome is that after their technical education our aspiring space explorers will end up doing what the military-industrial complex calls “capability maintenance” – which easily means work that has all the technical, social, and political value of a “bridge to nowhere.” To a congressperson, military pork is the most valuable and secure kind of jobs program; to a defense contractor, bloated programs are steady income.
I’m in my early career. I’m not as bitter as, say, NASA Watch yet (and the ire I do have goes straight at Congress rather than at NASA administration). I consider myself fortunate that, even though I don’t work for NASA, I am working on a NASA mission that’s relevant to civil science. But I do see that there are hard, important problems out there that we need to solve – some, problems of national import – while we divert resources elsewhere. I imagine if we decommissioned a few surplus ships, we could instead land humans on Mars. I think if we could close a few extraneous bases, we might instead determine that we are not alone in the universe. Or I wonder, if we shut down our arsenal of Minuteman missile silos – leaving our ability to combat modern threats unaffected – could we instead attack what is probably the greatest known future national security issue: climate change? I want to make the world a better place by working on those problems, and by stretching human capabilities and knowledge out into space. And I, for one, view a lack of investment in science and innovation as more relevant to the United States’ national security than many overt military programs.
We have to remember that the point of NASA is not just to inspire. And the point definitely isn’t to be a jobs program for targeted areas of Alabama, Texas, California, and Florida. Historically, it wasn’t even to explore space. The point of NASA was to move our nation forward in scientific and technological capability. Popular inspiration is a nice, and effective, bonus. But our leaders in the Capitol are clearly in more need of science advocacy than we are. If we could inspire a little more political courage from them, to move money from safe-but-unnecessary programs to critical development agencies and unleash those agencies to innovate, then the rest of America can go on to great things – after inspiration.