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"Science for the sake of science" - should we be landing mankind on the Moon again?

Mia Wroe explores whether money going towards sending mankind to the moon again for ‘Plan B’ is the right thing to do.

The undeniable aim of science is to expand the collective human knowledge of the world (indeed, the universe) of which we are a part. However, science in the modern world must be funded, which means that choices must be made regarding which science ventures should be carried out and which are not financially feasible. Governments across the world are making these decisions every day, and never has this been more evident than now, in the age of COVID-19, Brexit, and the political turmoil of the United States. But what factors should we be basing these decisions on? Is it ethical to fund science that has no apparent direct benefit to the average person?

In 2017, the United States budgeted $72.9 billion towards non-military ‘research and development.’ Of this, a massive 34% was dedicated to NASA - $19.29 billion to NASA directly, and a further $5.74 billion to NASA’s Office for Science. This means that in 2017, the United States spent more funding on NASA than the UK government spent on all of its science and research combined in the same year. With so much of the US civilian research and development budget dedicated to space exploration, the decision to fund NASA to such an extent must be continually reevaluated to ensure that this money is where it will do the most good for the greatest number.

NASA’s principle vision, in their own words, is ‘to discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity,’ which is to say, science for the sake of amassing knowledge, or science for the sake of science. Undoubtedly, it has done what it set out to do; camera phones, GPS, memory foam, modern home insulation, wireless headphones and computers, baby formula and so much more can all be credited back to NASA’s technological development. NASA is living proof that well-funded science can produce truly incredible things: inventions which have real, everyday, practical impacts for the average person. If it wasn’t for ‘science for the sake of science,’ it is possible that these things which seem so fundamental to us now, in 2020, would not exist.

In 2021, NASA plans to begin launching flights in preparation of landing manned missions on the Moon again in 2024, as part of its Artemis programme. By the agency’s own projection, the programme will cost $35 billion. This money will go into the upgrading of the launch system at the Kennedy Space Centre and the development of new spacecraft, spacesuits, lunar landers, and a new lunar outpost to orbit the Moon and act as a base for future manned operations, set to occur every year after 2024. The aim of the Artemis programme is to model what future missions to Mars may look like.

Perhaps the most common argument for continued manned missions is to provide an alternative to Earth in the case of natural or anthropological disaster. With the looming impact of climate change, it is perhaps natural to expect some governments to prioritise this so-called ‘Plan B.’ However, the United States only budgeted $8.06 billion towards its Environmental Protection Agency in 2017. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are being felt right now. In the United States alone, California’s forests are still burning, droughts in the Southwest are worsening, and North Atlantic hurricanes are set to become larger and stronger, predicted to displace millions of people. Can another Moon landing really be ethical when citizens are suffering right now?

NASA has played a key role in climate and Earth science research, particularly through its satellite system; it is a key researcher in the field of climate science, providing data of global significance. However, NASA’s role is not to provide solutions to these issues - it is futile to produce this data without appropriate funding to tackle the problem that is so clearly indicated by the data it produces. United States policy-makers must ask themselves - can this country justify spending billions of dollars sending men to the Moon again when NASA itself predicts worsening droughts, forest fires, hurricanes, sea level risk, insect outbreaks, widespread tree die-off, decreased water and food security and more in the United States itself?

This is the sort of question that many governments around the world must ask themselves now - if scientific research must be limited by the funding set forth by these governments, funding that comes from the taxpayer, then it is the people who give these governments their power that should benefit the most from this research. Citizens should not be left to feel the effects of climate change while billions of dollars are spent funding science that does not have their best interests at its core.

From Issue 21

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