Why small budgetary increases to NASA may pave the way for amazing technological advance.
NASA currently uses .48% of the federal budget (reference). With this budget, NASA has achieved great strides- robotic interplanetary missions are now commonplace. Have you realized how remarkable it is that we are sending probes to other planets on a semiregular basis? It seems that this fact has been lost on us. However, with advances in science and technology, even a budget this slim is capable of going much further.
I believe that the current limiting factor for human interplanetary space travel is the feasibility of a space elevator. If one space elevator is constructed, it will open a floodgate of space travel possibilities. The cost per pound to send an object to space will plummet, as Earth’s gravitational well will no longer have to be defeated by expensive rockets. Space elevators will simply “winch” payloads to the appropriate altitude. The feasibility of a space elevator, however, is currently questionable. The largest concern is having a material strong enough to serve as the “cable” for the system. Therefore, innovation in material science is paramount to this task. It has been posited that a carbon nanotube cable would be more than capable of performing this task. It is 100x stronger in tensile loading than our strongest steels. Carbon nanotube research is developing rapidly, and we will likely see this material used in a bulk form in the relatively near future. Given this argument, I believe that space travel will become much cheaper in the future. Once this occurs, I believe that space exploration will be an excellent use of human resources.
This exploration is not exclusively for scientific discovery. In certain applications, it will be commercially appropriate. The current example of commercial satellites demonstrates the “marketability” of space. Other possibilities for space commercialization have been proposed. One novel idea is a satellite maintained in Earth’s eclipse, in order to house a superconducting computer in the low temperatures it requires. In the future, this may even be the cheapest option for such computers- current superconducting technology requires vastly expensive liquid helium cooling equipment. If the space elevator becomes available, the new option will likely become preferable.
Additionally, once the space elevator exists, NASA will likely want to prioritize on deeper space missions, given the new possibilities governed by lower costs. I feel that if current political pressure has still only restricted NASA’s budget to .48% of the federal budget, the existence of the space elevator would ease this pressure, and NASA’s budget would be allowed to grow. At this operating condition, NASA would not only be more effective per dollar, but would also have more dollars to spend- allowing exploration possibilities that were previously unfeasible. Manned missions to other planets would advance human knowledge, and allow us to gain a better understanding of the universe. I believe this is an excellent use of human resources.
In conclusion, I believe that space exploration will only become more and more feasible and useful as the appropriate technology improves, and as such will become a superior use of human effort over time.