In the midst of the ongoing debt and budget crises, politicians and voters continue to engage in the contentious debate regarding the faulty prioritization of U.S. government spending. Most Americans remain concerned with the recklessness of large government spending in what they consider lesser priority areas. Operating on a $3.7 trillion budget for fiscal year 2012, Congress awarded $18.7 billion to NASA, encouraging the administration to reinvigorate its traditional role of innovation, technological development, and scientific discovery. On the other hand, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received $4.5 billion, $1 billion less than their requested amount.
This large discrepancy between the dollars allocated to these agencies is a clear-cut example of the growing concern among Americans regarding profuse government spending. Given that 95% of the underwater world remains unexplored and the space program has experienced little to no progress in recent years, should the space program remain a priority?
The last half of the 20th century was marked by the ideological and technological warfare between the U.S. and the Soviet bloc. The Cold War morphed itself in several arenas from proxy wars to political conflict to economic and technological competition such as the Space Race. The Space Race is synonymous with the arms race, where one of the main frontiers where the Cold War was waged. As a result, accomplishments and developments made in these areas not only enhanced American power, but were also received with a strong sense of national pride.
However, the backbone of the Information Age lies in developing innovative science and technology that will enable us to explore new worlds and increase our understanding of the earth. Space exploration has contributed largely to this effort as a result of relentless government support and a strong lobbyist backing. Lawmakers from Alabama, Maryland, and Utah, where NASA and the corporations typically awarded its contracts operate, invest heavily in lobbyists and PACs to push their agendas forward in Washington.
On the contrary, although oceans are exploited for economic activities such as mineral extraction, dumping, commercial transportation, fisheries, and aquaculture, oceanic exploration has lagged behind due to insufficient support from the U.S. government. According to NOAA, "one of every six jobs in the United States is marine-related and over one-third of the U.S. GNP originates in coastal areas, the ocean is key to transportation, recreation, and its resources may hold the cures to many diseases." Since its potential contribution to human sustainability stands at equal footing with space research, government should apportion the necessary capital needed to explore the deep-sea frontier.
Moreover, since its establishment in 1957, NASA has always faced attack from social activists accusing the agency of wasting resources that could be used here on earth. Given the daunting issues in the country today such as poverty, unemployment, lack of access to health care, a broken education system, and many others, many believe that the large amount of money poured into space research could be used to tackle these issues. Moreover, due to our limited understanding of oceanic activities and processes, we continue to remain subject to the implications of natural disasters stemming from the ocean. Investing in oceanic research may help discover preventive mechanisms against catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis, and oil spills.
The historical link between the American military complex and the space program may be the reason behind continued government support to the space agency. Arguably, the War on Terror has recreated tension similar to the Cold War era, forcing government to pour investment towards maintaining military supremacy in its fight against terrorism. The pronounced favoritism towards space research could therefore be attributed to the U.S. government’s traditional preference for hard power politics over soft power politics. While there is no doubt about the contributions of the space program to technological developments in numerous areas, one cannot help but question its relevance in a post-Cold War world. Possessing jurisdiction over 3.4 million square miles of ocean, there lies enormous potential to realize the benefits of the ocean while ensuring its sustainability for future generations.
Photo Credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya