Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Bother?

A return to reliable internet after a week of church camp means a return to posting!

BBC Science Editor David Shukman tackles a question he's heard several times, he said, since the news of the New Horizons flyby began to take up space on the airwaves and more detailed photos than ever before show us what far-distant Pluto really looks like.

Why bother exploring the Solar System at all? Why send expensive space probes to look at other planets?

Mr. Shukman is much more gracious than I, because my answer to a question such as, "Why bother?" might be to ask the person how many colors of belly button lint they have, since they seem very content to gaze at themselves rather than lift their eyes outward and upward. I can't fathom such a complete lack of curiosity about the universe where we live. I really do not understand not wanting to know what's out there, what it looks like, and whatever we can find out about it.

Sometimes people ask the question in somewhat more prosaic and sensible terms, even if a little bit of thought would probably show them that their question falls apart under its own terms. Mr. Shukman notes a person who asks one of the most common questions asked of exploratory efforts -- couldn't this money have been spent on food for the hungry, or shelter for the homeless, or something else humanitarian that would address genuine needs of real people?

Obviously, it could have. The total cost of New Horizons mission is around $700 million since it began the planning stages in 2001, and that money could certainly have bought food or paid rent. The 2014 fiscal year budget for the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families program was $17.35 billion. Add up all of the TANF money spent since New Horizons began and you have probably crossed the $200 billion barrier, and if you let your calculator do that math you will find that New Horizons cost one three-thousandth (.003) of a percent of the total budget for TANF in that same time frame.

Or seen another way, TANF daily average spending for that 2014 year would have been just under $47 million -- the program's help to needy people cost about $47 million each day. If we had somehow been able to switch the New Horizons money to TANF and used the whole $700 million starting on July 1, the fiscal new year, it would have fed however many people TANF feeds until about 9:30 PM July 14, when its $700 million ran out. And those figures are working only on the TANF program: There are many government programs that help people, and if we were to try to total them all up New Horizons' budget starts to look even smaller by comparison. If you'd like to add private charities to the overall spending, then the distance widens even more.

So while feeding people is indeed important, the reality is that axing the Pluto probe or the whole space program at this point would not make much of a difference in whether or not hungry people got food. The concern of the questioner regarding hungry people is laudable, but a little thinking cap application ought to show why the tenuous and perhaps non-existant dichotomy between exploration and tending to people's needs is not nearly the devastating debate-ender it's believed to be by program opponents.

1 comment:

fillyjonk said...

Two thoughts:

Didn't some of the widely used (and widely abused) cell-phone and Internet technology come out of the earlier iterations of the space program? It can be hard to defend "useless" research to some folks...but sometimes it's 30 years before you see the fruits of something.

And the other thing: it just made me SO HAPPY to see the footage of the NASA engineers cheering when the flyby was successful. Reminded me of some of the stuff from my childhood with Voyagers I and II and similar. I think there WAS a morale boost, at least for some people - here's something happening in the news that's NOT someone being awful to another person or telling us we're all doomed. More news like this, please.