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With dwindling money in the coffers of the United States and other countries, many people ask why should the government fund space exploration. The root of the argument lies in the fact that as billions of dollars are spent on experiments and spacecraft to other planets and moons, there are plenty of projects here on Earth that require additional attention. As government officials attempt to trim the national budget much like people in their own homes do, the space program becomes a major source of frustration for those who point to the growing threat of Social Security reform and Medicare reform.
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History of the Space Program
The space program in both the United States and then-Soviet Union was built heavily around the military after World War II. Scientific research conducted in both countries, as well as Europe, proved invaluable after the fall of Germany and the onset of the Cold War. Both governments strived to be the first to reach outer space. In addition, the technological ramifications of the programs proved useful for military application. Much of what both nations learned during the 1950s and early 1960s was essential in creating weapons such as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Through massive funding from the government, projects such as orbiting a man around the Earth and landing on the Moon were successfully completed.
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Scientific and Technological Goals
When asking should the government fund space exploration, the key concept to remember is the reason we are conducting these missions.
First, there is the pure science aspect to space exploration. NASA and other space agencies around the world have a strong focus on scientific information. Since the dawn of man, we have looked out past the horizon and asked what is beyond a hill. In this case, the proverbial hill is the solar system and what's beyond is the planets and other objects. Simple mapping and exploration is its own reward to many people. We have a basic instinct to learn what we don't know. That is possibly the main driving force behind funding a space program.
Additionally, the scientific understanding of the universe has proved fruitful. Before the beginning of the space program, people had no idea what the climate was like on other planets or how gravity fully functioned away from Earth. For example, we only had preliminary theories about the Interplanetary Transport Network, an elaborate system of gravity “highways" that can be used to transport spacecraft through the solar system.
Secondary aspects are also highly important to the longevity of the space program. NASA has been at the forefront of not only making many products popular, but also creating new ones. Known as “spinoffs," these are highly celebrated as some of the best side effects of human spaceflight. We wouldn't have things like polymer foam and advanced diving suits without technology first pioneered by NASA.
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Concerns About Further Expenditures
One of the main points opponents of government funding for space exploration address is the fact that private enterprise may be able to conduct space programs much more efficiently than the government. It's a general consensus that the federal government is laced with bureaucratic problems and too much overhead. Essentially, these people argue that are too many people that push around paper each time a spacecraft is launched.
The cost of spaceflight to the public can also be staggering. For example, each time the Space Shuttle is launched, the American taxpayer foots the bill of approximately $420 million. After the Columbia disaster this increased to over $700 million due to safety precautions. Opponents argue that this money could be spent elsewhere.
Others point to the fact that even the secondary technology factor is not enough to warrant the spending. Much of the developments that are used from NASA were made during the Apollo missions in the 1960s.
With the increased demand by Americans to cut budgets and wipe away unneeded expenses from the federal government, the space program is a major target. While many people are threatened by the ending of something that has been a mainstay of policy since World War II, others are celebrating. No matter which side of the fence you stand on, changing the status quo is always hard.
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"Manned versus Unmanned Space Exploration" Physorg: http://www.physorg.com/news8442.html
"Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost" New York Times: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/11/is-space-exploration-worth-the-cost-a-freakonomics-quorum/
"Putting NASA's Budget in Perspective" The Space Review: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/898/1
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Mercury 3. (Supplied by NASA; Public Domain; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Mercury_3.jpg)