In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut, test pilot and industrial technician Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, and orbit the planet abroad the spacecraft Vostok 1. Gagarin spent one hour and 48 minutes in space and orbited the Earth with a maximum altitude of 327 km using an entirely automatic control system.

This historic event was commemorated by awarding the Order of Lenin and giving the title of Hero of the Soviet Union to Gagarin, monuments were raised and streets renamed in his honour in the Soviet Union, making him a worldwide celebrity instantly. Gagarin died in 1968 during a routine jet-aircraft test flight and his ashes were placed in the Kremlin wall in Moscow. In 1963, the Soviet Union also broke the record by sending the first woman Valentina Tereshkova in space aboard the Vostok 6 mission.

In the same year of 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a national goal of landing a man on the moon and return safely by the end of the decade. It took less than ten years to achieve this goal.

Credit: Suomen valokuvataiteen museo – Yuri Gargarin

In 16th July 1969 Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were blasted off on the Apollo 11, and four days later Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in the Lunar Module “The Eagle”, making Neil Armstrong the first human to step foot on the moon. Collins stayed in orbit around the moon doing experiments and taking photos. Armstrong and Aldrin walked for three hours on the moon doing experiments and picking up moon dirt and rocks. They put a U.S flag and left a sign on the moon. They then returned to orbit, joined Collins, and returned back to Earth safely on 24 July 1969.

Credit:NASA – Apollo 11 crew

This historical achievement was not possible without the huge amount of sacrifice needed to make it happen. Astronauts and astronaut candidates died in airplane crashes or vehicle tests, many other NASA ground crew and workers perished during accidents, and dozens of test pilots died in the decades leading up to Apollo, in the efforts to lead the space race and landing the first man on the moon. In the midst of striving to accomplish the moon mission, it was questionable whether it was worth it, due to the amount of lives and money lost in the process. The level of sacrifice and intensity during and for the moon landing mission is unprecedented and is unlikely to be repeated according to many historians.

Credit:NASA – Edwin Aldrin

With time, the Soviet Union and United States began collaborating in their spaceflight endeavours. The first spaceflight collaboration was in 1975, with Apollo-Soyuz, followed with NASA sending several astronauts to Russian space station Mir after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This collaboration paved the way for NASA and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) to become major partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program, that launched its first modules in 1998 and continues to provide research today in collaboration with 18 national space agencies.

Credit:NASA – ISS

This start on exploring and using space systems has resulted in many satellites being developed and enhanced to carry out different functions. In the 1980s, communication satellites were expanded to carry television programs and channels, satellites enabled us to discover an ozone hole over Antarctica, pinpointing forest fires, discovering new stars, and giving a new view of the centre of our galaxy. The value of satellites and space systems increased due to its use in military such as providing information on enemy troops formations and movements, early warning of enemy missile attacks, and precise navigation in foreign and desolate areas, and also its use in weather surveillance, communications, navigation, imaging and remote sensing for environmental changes, chemicals and disasters.

The revolution of exploring space and humans experimenting and researching in space has resulted in many innovations and technological advances. It contributes to improving our understanding of the human body, talking on cellular phones, measuring pollution, monitoring climate change, making scientific discoveries, cooperating with countries around the world, performing risky surgical procedures using enhanced medical technologies inspired by space technologies, and many other sectors and applications were transformed due to being inspired by space technologies.

Some examples are ‘memory foam’, it was firstly used for airline crash protection, now it’s widely used in pillows, mattresses and shoes. As well as, digital watches that were the result of the Apollo program, ear thermometers that are widely known and used now, water and air filters, food safety systems, ventricular assist devices (VADs), artificial limbs, antifreeze systems for car coolers, and baby foods that were the product of astronaut’s food experiments. It also contributed in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), smoke detection and many more, the list continues to grow each day.

The space industry has provided many job opportunities to various fields, making the workforce stronger, impacted the economic growth, encouraged students to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers, and enhanced knowledge, science, discovery and education to inspire innovation, creation and even art. There are many intangible benefits such as better understanding Earth’s atmosphere, ecosystems, the development of Global Position Satellite (GPS) navigation and exploring our universe, or constructing the ISS to enable long-term exploration and research studies, this knowledge is immeasurable to the encyclopaedia of the human race.

Nonetheless, there are some negative effects of space exploration such as the increase of debris on Earth orbit, usage of chemicals that increase the depleting of the ozone layer, which in turn contributes to the global warming, astronauts also may experience some negative physical effects from space exploration, as well as, the high cost associated with it.

The assumption that many have is that the expenses spent on space exploration and related activities will take away from funds and vital resources that could have addressed poverty, feeding the hungry, etc. is without basis, other than facile logic that says spending money on scientific exploration and research in space will result in less money to address the problems we are facing on Earth. Even though, there is no guarantee that not spending the money on space activities will automatically mean that the money will be used in solving social, environmental and economic problems. Furthermore, if its about resources, then there are many other fields that spend more money and resources with less demonstrable benefits that could have been used for humanitarian aid, or alleviating poverty. So, why exclude space exploration and centring the argument of space exploration and addressing the numerous issues on Earth as mutually exclusive, rather than complimentary? This is not born out by reason.

Nonetheless, asking if space exploration is worth the investment is sensible and necessary. Taking into consideration that all the technological advances, innovations, knowledge gained from exploration (e.g. interconnected life and ecosystems), revolutions in communications, transportation, medicine, computing, astrophysics, astronomy, and planetary sciences would not be possible without space exploration. Additionally, the ability on whether or not we can address the problems on Earth without investing in space exploration is worth considering.

By Reem Senan, September 30th 2019