Why We Need NASA

I wrote this as a speech for a class I took last year called “Arts of Oral Presentation.” However, I think that it holds up pretty well, and while it is a bit histrionic, it does express my views on why we need NASA and what, beyond just science, NASA does for our nation. I was inspired to share this by the hashtag #WhatIsNASAFor on twitter, so for more concrete examples of why we need NASA, I encourage you to go over there and read the links under that hashtag. So, without further ado…

Vincent Van Gogh once said “For my past I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

The United States are embroiled in war, economic struggle, and ideological polarization. These things keep us tied to the ground. We are jaded, cynical and weary. Too weary to dream.

But this has been a red –letter year for scientific discovery in the US. Our rover finally made it to Mars. We’ve discovered a planet that may have the Earth-like conditions necessary for life. Just this week, astronomers at NASA observed for the very first time a black hole in its infancy. And every single one of these scientific discoveries make me dream.

Space exploration doesn’t only give us Tang and Velcro and a 3-D printer that synthesizes and creates food — it revives our sense of wonder, it gives us hope. It gives us the ambition to try what has never been done before, and that inspires us to innovate. In the golden age of space exploration, when we made it to the moon for the very first time, we were excited about new discoveries. We were hopeful for a future full of exploration and adventure. And we were proud of our country. We had done something that no other nation could do. And not only the cosmologists and engineers and astronauts were proud. Everyone was. The moon made us dream.

But I understand that it’s not all about dreaming. Even with our head in the clouds, we must, for now, keep our metaphorical feet on the ground. We are a nation in debt. We are in a recession. Some might say that the money simply isn’t there to support a space program.

Historically, when we invest $1 into NASA, there is a tenfold return on that dollar back into the economy. Not only that, but it creates jobs. And when our space program is ahead of other nations, like it was when we started, we cannot outsource jobs. Nobody else knows how to do what we can do, to build what we can build. So the jobs stay here. The money that we put into NASA can only grow, and it stays here.

For 2013, the federal budget allots $17.7 billion dollars to NASA. Now that may sound like a lot of money, but let me put it in perspective. This year’s federal budget also contains an allotment for a new squadron of 6 high-tech fighter jets. As of yet, there is no plan for where or how the department of defense will use these jets. They will cost $40 billion dollars. The department of defense will get a total of $666 billion dollars this year. But space exploration only gets $17.7. That’s about a fourtieth. One fourtieth.

This year’s federal budget gives NASA less than half a percent of the total budget. That is less than half of one penny from each of your tax dollars. Doesn’t NASA deserve a full penny? Are we so jaded, so focused on saving money, that we wouldn’t give an extra half a penny on the dollar to explore space? Are we willing to lose the universe for that little? Are we willing to lose what makes us dream?

Americans spend $44 billion dollars on tobacco products every year. We spend $6 billion dollars a year on unused gift cards. Yes, we’re in a recession, but our nation can afford to spend a third of what we give our National Aeronautics and Space Administration on gift cards that nobody even spends. That’s ludicrous.

And while we spend all that money on weapons and cigarettes and Target gift cards, our space program is floundering. We are losing our edge. The people who send us to space, who teach us to explore and discover, are being forced to move on, to do something else, and while they do that we are taking massive steps backward.

I do not want to take steps backward. I don’t want to live in a nation that has stopped dreaming. When I look at the stars, I want to see opportunity for discovery and exploration, not just a reminder or defeat. So we need to remind the leaders of our nation, the legislators and politicians, that our space program is important to us. I hope that you’ll stand with me, with eyes toward the stars, and remind them how to dream.

(This post is also up on Medium, which I just started using.)

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