Matthieu Liu | Space exploration: the case for basic science research funded by the government

Credit: Alana Kelly

NASA’s video of the Perseverance rover landing on Mars on February 18 was viewed on YouTube over 14 million times. The first SpaceX astronaut launch last summer had over 10 million live the viewers. Obviously, since the space race, space exploration has created some intrigue with the American public, including myself.

Like many other science enthusiasts, I read the story of Perseverance eagerly before it landed, seeking to learn more about the exciting new research it would be conducting on Mars. Instead, I found most of the media coverage on Perseverance to be very shallow, posting the same videos on the launch and landings, and telling the source of inspiration, wellness stories of those involved. He rarely went into the details of the actual science going on on the rover. This indicates a larger problem in space exploration, as these Martian missions and the basic research involved might not exist soon, and nobody talks about it.

Today, space becomes more and more privatized, while conversely, basic research is continually neglected. Although NASA’s overall budget has keep calm, that funding is often directed to private companies (like SpaceX and Blue Origin), while grants for basic and applied research have seen a simultaneous fall. The reallocation of US funding from basic research to private companies is a trend that is happening in all science, and experts warn that this will make research extremely secret and competitive, discouraging collaboration and stifling innovation. This contrasts sharply with, for example, the data policy of NASA, where all data is free for the public. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans support NASA’s basic research, government officials remain categorical by diverting NASA funds for basic and applied research to private companies. Americans must be aware that we cannot stray from basic, government-backed research.

The history of NASA has shown how useful its basic research can be. Cruise control, anti-lock brakes, food safety protocols and rechargeable hearing aids have been all developed from technologies and the practices of the Apollo missions. Using these technologies in the lives of civilians was not NASA’s original intention, but with additional innovations, the impact of the Apollo missions is still significant.

Current NASA efforts such as SMAP, or Soil Moisture Active Passive, are also making society fairer. SMAP monitors soil moisture levels on all continents and is therefore able to predict droughts, floods and crop yields. This is particularly beneficial in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where seasonal changes in rainfall significantly affect crop yields and food supply. Technology can make famines a relic of the past in areas historically prone to food insecurity.

For the endless benefits of basic research in space, look no further than the Penn campus. Igor Bargatin, professor of engineering at Penn and his team have developed “nanocarton microflyers”With the ability to fly in the Earth’s mesosphere and potentially above the surface of Mars, something that planes, helicopters and satellites have never been able to do before. The proposed use for these microflyers is to bring sensors into the mesosphere to gain a deep understanding of the weather and enable better climate predictions. However, what is probably more exciting are the many future applications of his research that are still unknown.

Asked about these unknown applications and the importance of basic research in space, Bargatin said: “When the Montgolfier brothers were making the first balloons, or the Wright brothers were making the first airplanes, did they have specific applications in mind? Probably not – they just wanted to do it because it had never been done before. The many practical applications of balloons and airplanes we see today came later, but they could never have happened without the scientific investigation of the Montgolfier and Wright brothers.

Most Americans support increased funding for NASA and government funding of basic research in general, but I think most are unaware of politicians’ broken promises to meet these goals. We need to push for a fundamental change in the way the government approaches funding for basic science. There is a place for the promotion of private space companies, but this cannot be done at the expense of research. This is the fundamental dilemma of basic research; It is a challenge to get the government to prioritize the funding of scientific research without immediate benefits. However, from understanding agriculture replacing hunting and gathering to understanding electricity driving the Industrial Revolution, advances in basic understanding of the world have always been followed by innovations that transformed human lives. There is no doubt in my mind that the potential benefits of a fairer society that basic research can bring deserve to be prioritized.

Matthew LIU is a sophomore at Allentown College, Pa. studying biochemistry. His email is liumatt@sas.upenn.edu.

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