Matthew Liu | Space Exploration: The case for government-funded basic science research


marscrumbles2-01

Credit: Alana Kelly

NASA’s video of the Perseverance rover touching down on Mars on Feb. 18 has been viewed on YouTube over 14 million times. The first SpaceX astronaut launch this past summer had over 10 million live viewers. Clearly, since the Space Race, space exploration has brought a level of intrigue to the American public, including myself.

Like many other science nerds, I fervently read about Perseverance leading up to its landing, seeking to learn more about the exciting new research that it would be doing on Mars. Instead, I found that most of the media coverage on Perseverance was very superficial, posting the same videos on the launch and landings, and telling the inspirational, feel-good stories of those involved. Rarely did it go into any detail behind the actual science taking place on the rover. This is indicative of a larger problem in space exploration, because these Mars missions and the basic research involved might not exist soon, and no one is talking about it. 

Today, space is becoming increasingly privatized, while conversely, basic research is continually being neglected. Although NASA’s overall budget has remained steady, that funding is often being directed to private companies (like SpaceX and Blue Origin), while the allocations for basic and applied research have see a simultaneous drop. Reallocation of U.S. basic research funding to private companies is a trend occurring throughout science, and experts warn it will make research extremely secretive and competitive, discouraging collaboration and stifling innovation. This starkly contrasts with, for example, NASA’s data policy, where all data is free to the public. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans support NASA’s basic research, government officials remain adamant in diverting NASA’s funds for basic and applied research to private companies. Americans need to be aware that we cannot shift away from government backed basic research.

NASA’s history has shown just how useful its basic research can be. Cruise control, antilock brakes, food safety protocols, and rechargeable hearing aids were all developed from technologies and practices from the Apollo missions. The use of these technologies in the lives of civilians was not the original intention of NASA, but with additional innovations, the impact of the Apollo missions is still significant. 

Current NASA endeavors such as SMAP, or Soil Moisture Active Passive, are also making society more equitable. SMAP monitors the soil moisture levels on every continent and is therefore able to predict droughts, floods, and crop yields. This is especially beneficial in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where seasonal changes in rainfall greatly affect crop yields and food supply. The technology can make famines a relic of the past in historically food-insecure regions. 

For the endless benefits of basic research in space, look no further than Penn’s campus. Penn Engineering professor Igor Bargatin and his team developed “nanocardboard microflyers” with the ability to fly in the Earth’s mesosphere and potentially above the surface of Mars, something that airplanes, helicopters, and satellites have never been able to do before. The proposed use for these microflyers is to bring sensors to the mesosphere to get an up-close understanding of weather and allow for better climate predictions. However, what is probably more exciting is the many future applications of his research that are still unknown. 

When asked about these unknown applications and the importance of basic research in space, Bargatin stated, “When the Montgolfier brothers were making the first balloons, or the Wright brothers making the first airplanes, did they have specific applications in mind? Probably not — they just wanted to do it because it’s never been done before.” The many practical applications of balloons and airplanes that we see today came later, but they could never have occurred without the scientific inquiry of the Montgolfier and the Wright brothers.

Most Americans support increased funding for NASA and government funding of basic research in general, but I think most are unaware of the unfulfilled promises by politicians to fill those goals. We need to push for a fundamental change in the way the government approaches basic science funding. There is a place for promoting private space companies, but this cannot come at the expense of research. This is the fundamental dilemma with basic research; it is a challenge to get the government to prioritize funding for scientific research with no immediate benefits. However, from the understanding of agriculture replacing hunting and gathering, to the understanding of electricity spurring the Industrial Revolution, advancements in the basic understanding of the world have always been followed by innovations that have transformed human lives. There is no doubt in my mind that the potential payoff of a more equitable society that basic research can provide is worth prioritizing.

MATTHEW LIU is a College sophomore from Allentown, Pa. studying biochemistry. His email is liumatt@sas.upenn.edu.