With the recent success and popularity of NASA’s Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars on August 6, 2012, I feel like this is a good time to put forth an argument for the advocation of NASA’s potential and usefulness. Because NASA inspires; not only does it inspire, but there are so many so-called “trickle-down” technologies which are in existence because of the direct result of NASA research and ingenuity. Among these are advances in artificial limb technologies, improved radial tires, video enhancing and analysis systems for both law-enforcement and military applications, firefighting equipment for more light-weight breathing apparatuses, radio communications, what is now called “memory foam”, enriched baby food, water purification systems, and of course some of the most obvious technological benefits such as satellite communications and GPS, many of which are so widely used and relied upon today in our world that it’s hard to imagine them not having been developed in the first place.
I understand that one of the biggest (and most reasonable) concerns over space travel is, to put simply, cost. Among many things, certainly of great particular concern, especially these days, is the cost of the fuel. Not only is it wildly expensive (a single Shuttle launch reportedly cost about 1.1 billion dollars), but the fuel could presumably be used elsewhere. And that's fair enough, for sure; I don't think anyone could argue the validity of that concern. However, I strongly believe that the cost is justified.
So because of the admittedly immense cost of space travel endeavors as they are today, and of my sympathy with the associated concerns, I'd like to propose a gesture not totally unlike the "moments of silence" which have long been observed to pay tribute to various tragedies.
The Space Shuttle reportedly consumed three and a half million pounds of fuel per launch. This is definitely a lot of fuel… staggering, in a way, to think that this is for a single launch. However, in one day in the United States there is an estimated two and a half billion pounds of gasoline consumed. Simplifying the math will lead you to a ratio between the two, which shows that a single Shuttle launch is equivalent to just barely over two minutes of U.S. gasoline consumption:
2,500,000,000,000 lbs / 1440 minutes = 1,736,111.111 lbs/minute (fuel consumed per minute)
3,500,000 lbs / 1,736,111.111 lbs/minute = 2.016 minutes, or 121 seconds
So I propose that on some appointed day, probably on the day of a launch, to maximize the symbolism, every American operating a gasoline-consuming vehicle pulls over and shuts off said vehicle (safely, of course) and observes a moment of admiration for a mere two minutes and one second. Those measly 121 seconds represented the entire cost of fuel for the launch. Once two minutes and one second have passed, everyone will resume their day with a profound sensation of accomplishment resting in their hearts, warming their souls, renewing their faith in the power of human potential. Because in that brief period of time the entire fuel consumption of the launch was not being guzzled away by the citizens of the entire nation. In a vague sort of way it’s almost as if we paid for it entirely.
And I realize that this is ridiculously absurd. But I like the idea behind it, the gesture itself, the implications of what two minutes of us not aimlessly driving ourselves around can amount to. Of course the cumulative effort and cooperation of every single American is pretty much as far-fetched a thing to hope for as can be imagined, not to mention the fact that no money would actually be "saved" by this gesture; most people are still going to resume their drive and use up the same amount of fuel they would have anyway. Also, the Shuttle is now phased out of use completely, so the analogy is somewhat weakened by that. But the numbers could easily be manipulated to account for whatever newer vehicle is used, once they get developed. It won’t likely be too much different, although they will hopefully be more efficient and less demanding.
Speaking of collective effort, I have another proposal, one I am much more serious about. I believe it to be much more practical and, granted, probably at least as much more controversial. If every American adult was made to pay a sort of "NASA tax" of ten dollars each year, this would amount to about 2.5 billion dollars (estimates of the adult population of the United States is about 250 million). For perspective, the estimated cost of the Voyager program, perhaps the most important of any non-human mission so far, was about one billion dollars. Many have been cheaper, and some will definitely be more expensive. Of course the Apollo and Shuttle programs were exceedingly expensive. But space exploration involving human astronauts will always be much more expensive than robotic alternatives, and I think both should be pursued simultaneously and cooperatively. For more perspective, the 2012 budget for NASA is 17.8 billion dollars, slightly less than half of one percent of the national budget. This direct contribution from the public would increase the budget by about 14%, nudging the total over twenty billion—higher than it’s been, adjusted for inflation, since 1969, the year we first landed on the moon.
Also worth noting, the entire cost of the brand new (and so far wildly successful) Curiosity rover’s mission to Mars is said to be approximately 2.5 billion dollars—precisely the amount this action would revenue each year.
What is ten dollars to any one person, really? Certainly for any "average" American this is a measly amount of money--though I would not want to advocate any dismissal of the value of money when the issue might actually be quite serious. But how often does one of us go out to eat and spend close to, or more than, ten dollars? Or buy six sodas over time, or one movie ticket, or one CD or DVD, or 1/6 of an XBox game? I could lose ten dollars out of a hole in my pocket and it would have no lasting effect, if I even noticed it missing at all, and I’m not rich by any reasonable measure. Of course there must be exceptions to this generalization… I don't doubt there are people and families that are in legitimate need of absolutely any ten dollars they can get. In these cases, for situations truly this severe, I would not press the issue personally. Assuming this policy was ever actually adopted, I imagine it would take at least some effort of will for most people to come to terms with the justifications of the mandatory "NASA tax." But I would hope that in most cases it would not be much of a struggle, ideally none at all. Maybe most people would actually grow to appreciate the investment. And, of course, using the word “tax” in advocating this idea is probably going to stir some resentment, but I don’t know of a better way to execute such a plan if it could ever actually be adopted as a whole. I mean, we pay taxes every day, on virtually everything that we ever purchase, whether it’s a measly candy bar or a new TV or a car. Taxes are necessary for our economy’s continued growth, budget and success. The simple term should not infuriate, it should inspire dreams for what such small percentages of our earnings can initiate and progress with the help of our direct influence. This is a beautiful opportunity.
Even if a quarter of all American adults--62,500,000 people--truly cannot afford to contribute or just outright refuse to participate because they can't find the necessary minute shred of compassion within their blackened hearts, somehow legally filtered out of the “taxation”, then the same 2.5 billion dollars could be accumulated from $13.33 per person. Not so much of a change; or, if kept at $10 per, then the sum would still be a respectable 1.88 billion dollars and it would still benefit enormously.
Or this could be implemented as one dollar a month, or fifty cents biweekly, automatically taken out of your paycheck (whichever applies). We could even go less extreme and have each American adult invest one dollar at the end of the year. Just one dollar from each of 250 million people makes quite a sum even still (250 million dollars). Even one pitiful penny from each of us will supply them with 2.5 million dollars at the end of a year. Or we could add to the nation-wide tax revenue even a fraction of a percent, say one tenth of one percent, to all taxable purchases. I don’t know what that would amount to, but surely it would be an appreciable amount over the course of a year. If your area’s tax rate is, say, 8.75 percent, it would simply become 8.85 percent, and would hardly even be noticeable. There are any numbers of variations for such a policy to be implemented, any wide range of possible contributions, investments, from the people of such a promising nation to put forth. Each of them would provide such a benefit to NASA, or even another yet-to-be-established space program. I am somewhat surprised and disappointed that something like this hasn't already been adapted, but to be fair, the funding received by NASA from the government already is pretty much a portion of the taxes already being collected by the general public, and even this much gets its own share of controversy.
So one could argue that we are all already paying taxes, and, well, where do you think the money going to NASA already is coming from? But the point is, the money is there, in each of our possessions. I’m trying to suggest that we appreciate that NASA is an investment of government spending, not a “special case”, and deserves more than whatever they decide to allocate each year from the collection of public taxes alone. NASA would still be given what the federal budget deems worthy, valuable of course in its own right, but and then some, as an extra contribution from the general public who so deeply wallow in the returns of this investment aggregated over all the years it’s been utilized.
One could also argue why NASA? Why not an organization ready to clean up the atmosphere, or the oceans, or the forests, or the roads, or the education system, or whichever one of countless organizations with countless goals in mind? These are all also admirable goals, and very important, for sure. I do not mean to demean the value of any other charity or organization. Indeed, I would encourage donations wherever they can be given! Nothing is stopping anyone from contributing to any of these; anyone with extra generosity can invest to their heart’s content. I am simply advocating the addition of a small amount of money, to be carefully determined, into the tax system specifically for the nation's space exploration budget, and specifically for NASA, and not at the mercy of yearly budget cuts and not factored into what the government decides to fund of its own accord. I think this should be an independent contribution on top of what is deemed worthy of NASA’s federal budget. I argue that the investment into NASA exceeds virtually all other possibilities of organizations and charities of similar “scope”/”endeavors”. I argue that this extra contribution is in all of our best interests. Because in this age, in the twenty-first century, it seems obvious that the benefits of discoveries and advancements are mostly all going to be showered down from the frontiers of engineering and scientific innovations, and we need to keep that off-world frontier burgeoning, because that is the realm from which so much of what we cannot even anticipate is in all likelihood going to come from and work to make this world a better place for all its inhabitants.
With so large a population any amount of contribution, matched by all, so miniscule in each individual case, amounts to incredible quantities. And, especially in this case, with incredible quantities comes incredible discoveries. Another option for NASA’s benefit is for them to host some sort of annual Kickstarter-like fundraiser. This way the contributions would not be mandatory, and would not be defined by a standard, but could be absolutely anything a contributor might be willing to put forth… and, like most Kickstarters make use of, enticing rewards could be offered to stimulate the generosity. With a high enough investment perhaps one could even be rewarded a tour of a NASA facility, or the witnessing of a launch, or even a trip into orbit around the planet!
I just think that the implications of what is out there to be found and studied, the knowledge to gain, the unexplored worlds to really see for the first time, and the potential for our expansion and survival, are paramount in importance. The Earth's atmosphere is pretty much represented by the simple coat of lacquer on a standard globe. That's it, all which separates us here on the surface from everything out there ready to explore and discover... the frontiers of our thoughts are out there just out of our reach! Ready to be stumbled upon, ready to expand our knowledge of the universe and of ourselves and of this lonely planet we inhabit so fruitfully. And the effect on our culture is perhaps most impactful of all… because after we first went mankind to the moon, after we first saw photos of the entire sphere of Earth, so small and fragile suspended up there in the utterly black sky, the entire world was forever changed. We saw the implementation of so many new laws and organizations with renewed effort to clean up the planet, more efficiently manage our resources, and interact with each other not as a world divided by colorfully painted borders on the surface of a globe, but as one continuous, commonly inhabited and shared borderless planet. Because you can’t actually tell where one nation ends and the other begins, it’s completely arbitrary and meaningless when viewed upon at a distance great enough to actually observe large portions of the surface of the Earth with a single sweeping glance. There are no borders. And we finally saw this in its entirety when those first photos from sufficient distance were published. We began to truly understand that we are all one, we are all together, we are all striving to survive and make the best for ourselves on this enormous, bountiful world. But we need help to keep on advancing and improving the quality of life the world over… and it seems like NASA is one of, if not the prime candidates to continue to advance this frontier of discovery and innovation to continue this trend we’ve been so privileged to be a part of.
So let’s put forth a way in which we can not only keep those discoveries coming, but we can actually feel like we have been a part of their fruition by direct contributions, whether mandatory (but hopefully appreciable) or by generous voluntary contributions alone. As incredible and profoundly impactful as those fleetingly brief years were during the Apollo era, who can even imagine what newer insights and discoveries and cultural overcomings are idly awaiting our efforts to uncover? We need to go and find them. We need to keep dreaming about tomorrow and ever-expanding the frontiers of our thoughts and desires, and I can’t think of a better way to achieve this than to let the NASA organization keep doing its thing, of course managed and controlled for the best of all interests. It is absolutely incredible what they have managed to provide for the world so far in their fifty-year-plus history to date.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson so beautifully puts it, “We went to the moon, and we discovered Earth. I claim we discovered Earth for the first time.”
And you cannot put a price on that.