The Geography of Space Exploration: Adding Instruments to the Space Advocacy Chassis
As space advocates, we all get the question: “Why should we spend money on space when there are so many problems here on Earth?”
Frankly, I’m rarely impressed with the answers.
All too often I hear other space advocates say they “hate” or “can’t stand” the “problems here on Earth” question. I think that’s the wrong way to go. I love that question, it is both a necessary and legitimate question for anyone to ask. As space advocates we shouldn’t fear it, but embrace and, humbly, engage it. As it stands today, I don’t think that’s what most space advocates do.
Despite being both a space educator and strong advocate for investment in space technology, I have significant apprehensions with some of the most common types of space advocacy and their consequences for responsible off-Earth activities.
To explain why, there are two components of space advocacy I want to unpack: the over-reliance on certain arguments for why we explore space, and the technocratic, apolitical, undertones sometimes prevalent in space advocacy.
Space Advocacy’s Greatest Hits
As a form of space advocate, I am often asked why we would invest in space exploration and technology despite so many more pressing issues here on Earth. Given that I live and pay taxes in a country that has a national space agency, and that I both research and teach about space exploration, I find this to be an incredibly important question to respond to with poise and insight.
So, I yell “TEFLON!” and “INSPIRATION!” at anyone who asks and then run away to watch Cosmos again.
Actually, I take questions about why we go to space very seriously. Everyone has the legitimate right to question national space funding and the purpose of both space agencies and space technology development. Of course, I, and others, have the right to vote that we keep doing these things and intellectually (I hope!) defend them as worthwhile public services and pieces of national infrastructure.
However, when asked why we invest in space, I avoid, or minimize, the greatest hits of space advocacy, as I find them to be somewhat under-researched, over-used, and potentially even damaging in the long run. The two ‘greatest hits’ I speak of are the ‘inspiration’ and ‘spin-offs’ arguments.
These arguments don’t position space science as a public service to further human knowledge or as vital infrastructure, but instead as “cool” things that have practical side effects.
Both are fine arguments regarding the positive outcomes of space exploration and science, but neither speak to the actual processes or goals of the endeavor. These arguments don’t position space science as a public service to further human knowledge or as vital infrastructure, but instead as “cool” things that have practical (or capital) side effects.
Imagine we celebrated state investment in firefighting only because it lead to advancements in mobile water delivery, or that it inspired people to become firefighters. When we make spin-off or inspiration arguments to someone critical of space agency funding, it may seem as merely using the end to justify the means.
Lots of investments lead to spinoff technology, a primary example being war. Now, while some segments of our society do indeed go around lobbying for more war (in fact some of them build launch systems) the fact that spin-offs arise from both productive and destructive technology suggests that the argument on its own is not very useful.
Further, when it comes to valuable public funds, it is a worthy counter-argument that direct investment can be a much better use of public funds than hoping for spinoffs. In short, space-science advocates shouldn’t downplay the value of direct public investment in other areas in order to justify their own preferences.
Spinoffs and economic activity are fine, in fact they are great, but shouldn’t we be able to justify space-science on its own merits? Surely we don’t want to see space-science as a make-work project.
Aside from not being a particularly strong case, ultimately spin-off arguments risk losing track of the actual purpose of space exploration by buying into purely materialist and profit-driven visions of why space science is important. The same goes for the ‘jobs and economic activity’ argument. Spinoffs and economic activity are fine, in fact they are great, but shouldn’t we be able to justify space-science on its own merits?
Surely we don’t want to see space exploration as a make-work project. Further, which policy community advocating for more funding and attention can’t claim jobs and economic activity as an outcome?
As for the inspiration argument, again, it’s not a bad point, but is not unique to space exploration. Lots of things inspire people. People in the space community talk about how they got involved in engineering or planetary science from watching Star Wars and Star Trek as much as they talk about inspiration from actual space missions.
Additionally, the logic behind the inspiration argument is a bit circular; we invest in space to inspire more people to be interested in space so that we can invest in space…? No question, the inspiration that comes from space is great, but it’s not the reason space technology and science are important.
I should also mention that the ‘space as inspiration’ argument is sometimes couched in gross colonial narratives and comparisons to imperialism…no thanks. Finally, I also avoid arguments that focus on the false assumption that ‘space = progress’. However, that's a discussion for a different time (just because something happens in space doesnt mean its progress, and ‘progress’ for whom?).
Finally, the inspiration argument is imbued with wealth privilege (rampant in the space sector). When you grow up poor, inspiration doesn't matter if public schools and community infrastructure aren’t funded first.
Space Exploration Outside of the Bubble
The reason I am writing this piece on space advocacy is because after my presentation at a conference last year I had several conversations about this very issue. In chatting with fellow attendees, mostly from space agencies or universities in North America, it was evident that we all think about the question.
Far from running from this question with cliches about inspiration and progress, it’s my belief that space-science advocates need to take this question head on, more often, and with more rigorous consideration of broader social issues. Sure, within the bubble of space exploration, it all makes sense, but the feeling I got from speaking with colleagues was that space exploration advocates aren’t always doing a good job engaging the question outside of the space community.
We can’t ignore that funding for space agencies is decided upon amidst current national priorities and genuinely dire situations. In advocating for space agency funding we have to recognize its relation to a wider national budget and everything else citizens ask of their governments — health care, social welfare programs, medical research, law enforcement, public transportation, international diplomacy, public safety, consumer affairs, and so on.
In my opinion, when space-anything (or space at all costs) advocates say that these things are not related and shouldn’t be compared, they are ignoring the central premise of publicly funded agencies and representative democracy, and doing far more harm than good. Space agencies are public service providers based on national and global needs, of course their conduct is negotiable.
Far from running from this question with cliches about inspiration and progress, it’s my belief that space-science advocates need to take this question head on, more often, and with more rigorous consideration of broader social issues.
As someone at the conference pointed out to me: “when people ask how we can invest in a billion-dollar mission when we have chronically underfunded public schools, I don’t believe they unjustified in that line of questioning, but I also don’t think we give them good answers”.
Exploring and investing in space is always negotiable. If we fail to acknowledge this, we’re launching ourselves towards elitist technocratic governance, ignorant of our privilege to be detached from the daily lived-experiences of billions of our fellow Earthlings.
So, having identified that spin-offs and inspiration are great but not sole reasons to support space science, that space advocacy can’t be separated from broader sociopolitical issues, what do I say when people ask: “why do we spend money on space”?
I’m not suggesting space advocates throw out spin-off or inspiration arguments, but add to them the things people in the space community already know are the more direct benefits, and unique purposes, of space-science.
Ultimately, there are four broad reasons I advocate for investment in space. I am certainly open to more, but they are:
- Observation satellites for Earth science, environmental protection, aiding environmental policy-making, and promoting human security.
- Space-based communications and navigation networks as public services to increase connectivity and access to information for all.
- Understanding the evolution of the universe, solar system and planets as well as their relation to the origin(s) of life.
- Figuring out if we are alone in the universe.
The first two are fundamental components of our daily lives and part of making this planet livable for the 11 billion or so people we expect to top out at. The latter two are essential questions that drive multiple fields of scientific endeavor and are among the key existential concerns of the human condition.
Now I don’t claim this list to be definitive, but I feel comfortable that these processes and questions justify a spot in national budgets. I’m also not suggesting space advocates throw out spin-off or inspiration arguments, but add to them the things people in the space community already know are the more direct benefits, and unique, purposes of space-science.
Of course, these are just the desired processes and end goals. How much we spend on them is a different issue. I’m all for arguing with other space-_____ advocates about how money is allocated as part of national space funding. As long as these debates focus on the processes being funded themselves (not just their side-effects), distinguish different uses of space, and take place with recognition of the broader socio-political realities of the world we live in. At the end of the day, it’s always good to remember that space advocacy doesn't happen in a vacuum.
Danny Bednar is a PhD Candidate and Lecturer at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. His study areas include: climate change adaptation, environmental applications of space technology, the geopolitics of outer space, and governance theory. His teaching areas are: environmental policy, geopolitics, space exploration, and environmental science. All views are his own.