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National Priorities: Climate Change vs. Space Exploration

Humans have endeavored to explore and learn from the universe since we first looked up at the skies. Space exploration has been made possible by the development of technology. Technological advances gave to rapid industrialization, which has ultimately contributed to climate change around the world. Global changes in climate have disrupted life and will continue to disrupt human economic and social progress. Given the challenges facing the planet for its sheer survival, the federal government should redirect resources earmarked for space exploration to climate change research and space travel technology should be funded only by private companies.

Prioritizing climate change research can best be accomplished by reorganizing funds previously allocated to NASA’s space exploration division into its Earth science department and other environmental intelligence agencies. For fiscal year (FY) 2017, NASA’s budget is $18.8 billion dollars; the space exploration division will be allocated $4.4 billion while the Earth science division will only receive $1.9 billion (“FY 2016”). If space exploration were left for other private aerospace companies to develop, the U.S. government could allocate the $4.4 billion to agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or to NASA’s Earth science division to engage in research to study the impact of climate change and potentially slow its effects. NOAA is requesting $70 million more than their 2016 budget of $5.8 billion (“FY 2017”); since the funding requested is relatively less than the current national space exploration budget, the demand is fairly realistic.

Though space exploration will increase human understanding of the universe, climate change has been negatively affecting international communities for years and if left uncontrolled, chaos will rage throughout the world. The environmental effects of climate change such as global warming can lead to social and economic instability among humans. Research has shown that “[… as] projected warming and drying continue to occur along with population growth, food yields and nutritional health will be impaired” (McMichael). When populations notice that resources are lacking, panic usually occurs. Panic tears communities apart and creates social disorder, and as a result, economic failure often follows. The effects of climate change will negatively impact economic growth and will not allow communities to maintain economic stability.

Agriculture is another victim of climate change as it suffers from the drastic changes in weather (Hanna and Oliva), and this could leave many to face extreme poverty and hunger. Due to changes in weather patterns, the US Environmental Protection Agency has predicted that by the end of the 21st century, 20-30% of endangered plant and animal species will become extinct. The shift in ecological conditions will allow for the rapid spread of disease and parasitic species (“Climate”) that are potentially harmful to human health and agriculture. Climate change is detrimental to human well-being and will only diminish global health.

Climate change is also linked to violence. Richard Akresh, a professor at the University of Illinois, explains that recent research reveals that less rain and warmer temperatures “…are linked to increases of conflicts at all scales, from interpersonal violence to war.” This can be observed from data that shows that an increase in global temperatures has provoked physical violence in African communities. As temperatures continue to rise, researchers predict that by 2030, the number of African casualties resulting from conflict will have increased by 50% from the numbers in 2009 (Burke et al). Another case of climate-change induced violence is in Syria; due to changing sea levels in the Mediterranean, Syria endured a three-year drought between 2007 and 2010 in their usually fertile farmlands.  Analysts believe this drought provoked social turmoil and civil war in Syria and crumbled the country’s weak political infrastructure (Kelley et al.). The consequences of climate change are fast occurring and hard hitting, targeting the social prosperity of communities and inflaming tensions between men.

Many private aerospace companies are capable of developing interplanetary and low-earth orbit transit systems and have been investing in research to compete with NASA to provide space transit for satellites and eventually humans. NASA could allocate more funds from the U.S. government to their Earth science division without slowing U.S. space industry growth. Many national private aerospace companies have demonstrated their abilities in independent tech design by creating successful satellites and spacecrafts. For example, Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace, both private companies, have designed and produced the Crew Space Transportation (CST) -100 spacecraft in order to transport NASA astronauts to “low-earth orbit destinations” starting 2017 (“Crew”). NASA is often dependent on smaller companies to provide transportation for their astronauts, which indicates that these companies produce reliable, high quality products. In 2011, NASA partnered with SpaceX. As a result, Dragon and Falcon 9, designed by SpaceX, are used by NASA today to transport cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). When Dragon successfully sent Falcon 9 to the ISS for cargo transport in 2012, it “…signaled the capability of the [private] industry to undertake such missions” (Giacalone). These are all strong indications that aerospace companies are ready to step in and become the new faces of U.S. space exploration.

Private aerospace companies are also working toward making space travel more accessible and more environmentally friendly. Currently, shuttle projectors are unable to be reused after they detach from the shuttle after takeoff. SpaceX intends to send humans to Mars using reusable vehicles so as to allow for more affordable travel; the company is aiming for a $500,000 boarding pass (“Mars”).Though many believe NASA to be the only organization able to lead astronauts into space,  private companies are already preparing for manned space travel. In September of 2016, the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, announced the company’s goal to make “humans a multi-planetary species” by leading a manned mission to Mars starting in 2030 (Leonard). Another private space company, Virgin Galactic, the world’s first privately-funded commercial space line, aims to “democratize” space travel by creating more affordable methods of transit through their WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo designs (“These”). Additionally, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, another privately funded company, is currently developing a variant design from their original Dream Chaser model, which is used to transport cargo to the International Space Station. The Dream Chaser Space System will accommodate seven astronauts and transport passengers to low-Earth Orbit destinations in the near future (“About”). New cabinet members, who may be appointed as part of the recent election, have speculated about how budget reorganizing within NASA will affect the future of human space travel; however, numerous private companies are already working to make the universe more accessible to man.

If private companies design the majority of national space exploration programs, the U.S. government could reapportion money used to fund NASA’s space exploration programs to agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which leads the nation in environmental intelligence. The NOAA requested a FY 2017 budget of $5.8 billion ($70 million more than 2016) in order to better “provide information and services to make communities more resilient, evolve the National Weather Service (NWS) [and] invest in observational infrastructure” (“NOAA”). On November 19, 2016, the agency finally launched GOES-R, the “first of [their] highly advanced geostationary weather satellites” (Barclay and Leslie). According to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, “GOES-R’s instruments will be capable of scanning the planet five times faster and with four times more resolution than any other satellite in our fleet.” This satellite is very beneficial as data collected will allow for faster and more accurate warnings and general forecasts; however, this design would only have been made possible by the $10 million increase in funding allocated to the NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service department. An increase in government funding will allow for more environmental intelligence projects like the GOES-R to become a reality.

NASA, which traditionally conducted space exploration and travel, will not suffer from lack of government funding because technologies like satellites are necessary for weather mapping and observing changes in land, sea and air. As NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman explains, “At NASA we explore: not only space, but also our home planet.” In 2012 NASA employed a project called Operation IceBridge over Antarctica to survey and record the changes in polar ice (Viñas). Since polar ice diminishes in season every year, international sea levels have risen. By conducting such research, NASA can better measure the rise in sea levels and create projections for the next twenty years which may motivate coastal community evacuation plans. NASA has also recently completed the construction of two Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) satellites; they will be utilized to monitor glaciers, aquifers and sea levels (Buis). Another NASA satellite, called the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, will be launched in December of this year to look at hurricane patterns around the globe; this eight micro satellite project may now be incomplete had NASA’s Earth science division not received $40 million in 2016. Allotting this division more funds will allow for more technology development that can further climate change research. Collecting climate change data is important and allows for the creation of research journals that are eventually presented to organizations like the United Nations (UN) to stimulate global awareness and the creation of government policy.

Though NASA’s Earth Science department focuses on climate change research, they also develop technologies with practical functions that have relatively low environmental impact; this promotes job security rather than diminishing career opportunity, as some have expressed their concern with lack of division diversity. For example, the agency is working to create low-carbon aircrafts by using a hybrid electric concept in order to reduce the effects of nitrogen and carbon emissions (Kilkenny). This will help reduce aircraft emissions of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides which have led to the growth of the tropospheric ozone; this ozone is toxic to all living things and is not a natural greenhouse gas (Johnson et al.). NASA expects “‘outside-the-box’ thinking” (Skytland) from their employees so engineers from both the Earth science and space divisions are often not specific to division and are able to work equally well for both. If NASA’s Earth science division is prioritized, more technologies like low-carbon aircrafts can be developed, thus enabling NASA to focus not only on climate change research but also to create methods of transport that use cleaner energy and will not further harm the environment.

The United States does not have to give up space exploration and travel, the government simply has to readjust priorities to address what is most currently relevant. The private sector has stepped in so that the federal government is now free to allocate its resources to areas where there is a need for investment. Climate change spares no one in it’s attack; it targets everything in it’s path as it becomes increasingly worse. More funding to develop climate change prevention methods and technology will help international communities to better prepare for disaster and develop sustainability. Private companies are already developing major technologies and transport systems for NASA, proving their competence and ability to lead space exploration missions and tech design. This will allow for what were previously NASA space exploration funds to become funding for both NASA’s Earth science division and NOAA.

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