The International Space Station (ISS) deserves the support of America and the global space community. Manned by unsung heroes, the ISS provides financial, scientific, diplomatic and inspirational returns that are hard to measure but immensely valuable.
Spinning around Earth at more than 660,000 pounds, the first station component took orbit in 1998. Only three crewmen ride in orbit, but the ISS gets ground support from more than 100,000 people in 500 facilities located in 16 countries and 37 states, according to NASA’s Web site. Astronauts in every space program perform a heroic service for science and, consequently, all mankind. They work in an extremely hazardous environment: The hard vacuum of space allows no tolerance for failures or mistakes.
In May, the media took it as a joke that the ISS toilet broke down and needed repair. Joke about the plumbing if you will, but life in orbit is difficult and dangerous.
Many people suggest abandoning manned space activities. They feel that Earth-based issues require more attention. One must keep in mind, however, that money spent on space technology flows back into the economy in productive ways. The industry employs various people, from engineers to assembly line workers. All these people function in the community — eating lunch, buying gas and clothes — to stimulate the economy.
Some believe funding for manned missions could be made available through careful management of tax dollars, especially in the U.S. The American military budget, for example, roughly equates to the military expenditures of the rest of the world combined. Massive funds would become available by scaling back the outmoded, imperialist-style plan for U.S. bases around the globe and focusing instead on the home front and the high frontier.
Moving a chunk of the military budget need not even result in a widespread loss of jobs. Released people could be brought in to fill the ranks of a new, larger space agency. Re-tasking military personnel and displaced industry workers makes more sense than putting everyone out on the street.
There are also those who claim manned missions produce inferior scientific knowledge. On the contrary, manned orbital science lab conducts research and produces results that would be very difficult or impossible to achieve on the ground. Metallurgy, biotechnology, efficient fuel research, even cancer research could see significant gains thanks to orbital research.
The station might even be used as a platform for continued exploration of the solar system, beginning with Mars and the moon.
Older readers probably remember a time before weather satellites, with a forecast that might only stretch a day or two. Now the weather channel has 24-hour updates, color-coded maps and weekly forecasts, all thanks to applications provided by the space program.
Science cannot give a predetermined return on an investment, but science done well does provide valuable results. Basic science very often produces surprising and unexpected advances.
Some dislike the international cooperation inherent in ISS operations. They argue that other countries can’t be trusted or shouldn’t be relied upon. However, the fact is that the ISS gives countries a point of contact that is largely constructive, almost like international team building.
In a context of science and engineering, politics can fade into the background, allowing nations to collaborate in ways that help all people, as opposed to only narrow or regional interests.
But all these positives skirt the most important impact of the ISS and the world’s space programs generally: inspiration. While impossible to quantify in graphs and charts, people thirst for a better world, and some dream of life among the stars. The human heart yearns to discover and see all. The heroes in orbit inspire untold numbers of people around the world, from grade school children to college professors, who can lift their eyes skyward with pride in humanity and dreams of a better tomorrow.
The ISS needs support and should get showered with attention not only when the plumbing breaks, but in recognition of the valor and selflessness of those who man it. For reasons financial, scientific, diplomatic and, most importantly, inspirational, the station provides benefits that are out of this world.
Jason Olivero has received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Florida and is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.