Last Friday, I trekked over to the Cochran Chapel with a group of friends, simultaneously laughing while still cursing the cold, snowy weather. I felt a strange sort of steely nervousness coursing through my veins — an adrenaline sparked by my anticipation of hearing someone as accomplished as Dr. Mae Jemison, engineer, physician, and the first African American woman astronaut to reach outer space, speak. Her presentation inspired and captivated her audience, intensified only by her strong, passionate voice that rang throughout the carved wood. One idea she proposed that still rings in my head is one that I believe is essential to our generation: the importance of space travel not just for exploration’s sake, but for the sake of improving life on Earth.
When looking at government spending on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United States has seemingly forsaken future space exploration. According to “The Washington Post,” in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech, government spending on NASA reached 5.9 billion dollars in 1966, which, in 2015 dollars, is about 43.6 billion dollars – an all time high for the NASA budget. This year, government spending on NASA is expected to total just 19.3 billion dollars. For many, extraterrestrial exploration and discovery seem to be a trivial goal, one lined with frivolous intentions and childlike fantasy. While people still struggle to provide food and income for their families, spending substantial amounts of money to research other interstellar bodies can seem cruel and inhumane.
Dr. Mae Jemison acknowledged this fact, but specifically noted how each succesive space mission brought a host of new scientific ideas that could be implemented to improve life on Earth. For instance, when attempting to create software to produce more vivid pictures from space probes, researchers back on Earth were able to compile their discoveries into software that can detect abnormalities within the human circulatory system. Another example is the invention of a thick solution, known as emulsified zero-valent iron, originally used to break down the by-products of rocket launches. Emulsified zero-valent iron is now used to purify groundwater sources after possible contamination by industries that spill oil or toxic chemicals.
Dr. Mae Jemison proposed that even the smallest problems in space could birth new, groundbreaking ideas in all industries. The very clothing astronauts wear would open a new path towards developing more hygienic, durable, and comfortable fabrics. Foods that astronauts eat need to be more compact, nutritious, and easy to prepare, which can easily translate to new food-packaging techniques on Earth. Every problem faced in space exploration can challenge our thinking and thus force us to develop new ideas in different industries. Space exploration is an undeniable catalyst for technological development and the spread of new ideas. By innovating for the most uninhabitable of places, we are able to generate ideas and concepts that can fundamentally change every facet of our lives on Earth for the better.
Space exploration is not just simply the process of exploring space, but also the process of expanding the very capabilities of the human race. In previous years, space exploration has been put on hold by lack of funding and public interest. It is time again to rekindle our excitement of space exploration. Dr. Mae Jemison’s message has implications beyond the scope of space travel, but also to the necessity for a fundamental shift in our generation’s mindset towards space travel. There is so much potential in the stars, and somehow we have been made to perceive that potential as worthless. Being excited about space is not silly, or stupid, or unrealistic. Space should continue to fascinate all of us so that we may help our generation to be the one that expands human frontiers on all horizons.