On July 16, 1969, at 9:32 in the morning, a Saturn V rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This mission, known as Apollo 11, would prove to be arguably the most successful space mission in history, carrying three astronauts safely to the moon and back. Throughout the mission, news outlets, newspapers, reporters, and other media carefully followed and reported on the event, igniting the public’s imagination and curiosity.
The morning of November 5, 2013, was supposed to generate a similar reaction. Blasting off from Sriharikota, an island launch center of the Indian Space Research Association (ISRO), the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) began the long journey to Mars. Better yet, the mission came in on a budget of $73 million, a fraction of the cost of a similar mission run by the United States or by China.
However, the media reaction was anything but positive; in fact, most reports covering the launch were the exact opposite. One telling headline explains the reason behind these reactions: “India Mars Mission Launches Amidst Overwhelming Poverty.”
This headline touches on an incredibly difficult question: How can a government justify spending so much money on space while there are millions here on earth who need help? Sure, $73 million is a fantastically cheap cost to get to Mars, but is it ethical to spend this money on a satellite when adults and children are starving?
There is no easy answer to this question, and it is one that keeps coming up. Space exploration, once the defining race of the Cold War, now holds a similar draw and prestige for the developing world. With MOM, India became just the fourth government in the world to reach Mars, joining the company of the United States, Russia, and the European Union.
Other countries are also in the hunt for similar honors. According to a study by the Economist, depending on how you define a space program, there are over 70 such programs worldwide. These include programs in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, and Belarus, all of which have significant challenges of their own.
At first glance, the question about spending on space seems entirely reasonable. What is the point of learning whether life outside of this world is possible while we can’t even develop economies which make available food and shelter for everyone on earth? And yet, framing such a complex issue into such a simple and broad comparison is misleading, especially considering the good that comes from space exploration in the form of information and technology.
For example, in 1999, the Odisha cyclone smashed into the east coast of India, killing over 10,000 people. In 2013, another cyclone hit almost the exact same area with only a few casualties. The main difference? Weather satellites that would not have been in orbit were it not for the Indian space program.
Another benefit comes from technology created to withstand the harsh conditions of space. One such product is a refrigerator designed to be used on the moon. This incredible piece of engineering uses photovoltaic cells, commonly found in solar panels, to operate a heat pump, create vapor compression, and generate refrigeration. Best of all, it does this without the need for a battery, often the most expensive part of any solar-powered unit.
Inventions like this can have tremendous impact here on earth, especially for the poor. For example, the solar-powered refrigerator has been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide cooling for vaccines. My hope is that we recognize that space exploration and the fight against poverty need not be mutually exclusive. But, in times when a global leader is especially unsure about the efficacy of a space investment, my desire is that a bias might be shown toward developing programs that serve the poor directly without developing dependency.
Societal Impact of Space Program: Act Now