Making space for universal research


By Luke Vest

The desire to understand some of the universe’s greatest mysteries has waned in recent years.

In 2011, President Obama’s budget plan cut the funds for NASA’s Constellation program that would take men back to the moon. In addition, NASA ended its Space Shuttle program. Another frequent victim of lack of funding is the organization called the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

Oftentimes, organizations like these that set out to answer fundamental questions about the universe suffer because money is typically allocated to larger government institutions, such as health care and defense.

Traveling to the moon and searching for aliens may seem like a big waste of money to some people, but the truth is that these activities can effectively increase the economic growth of the country by creating jobs and producing commercial byproducts.

The end of the Space Shuttle program caused 7,000 people in Florida to lose their jobs. Many of these employees performed tasks highly specific to the maintenance and functioning of the shuttles, such as operating launch pad cranes and other machinery built exclusively for the shuttle.

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    In addition to manual laborers, NASA also employs people with degrees that are otherwise fruitless, like those in astrobiology. The discontinuation of the shuttle program makes these degrees less valuable because of the scarcity of careers and the disproportionate number of people qualified for them.

    NASA’s economic effect on the nation is largely unknown, but profound. Research done by NASA scientists has led to hundreds of “spinoffs” since the 1960s. Spinoffs are commercial products invented by the agency, which include shoe insoles, ear thermometers, memory foam, cordless tools and water filters.

    With the intent of safely sending humans into space, NASA frequently creates devices that positively impact society.

    The other organization SETI is often viewed in the same light as astrology: a pseudoscience. A pseudoscience is described as “a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific.” Many question the usefulness of funding programs such as SETI.

    While SETI may not produce as many byproducts as NASA does, it aims to answer questions about the presence of life in the universe. While this satisfies the human desire to explore, some people might say it doesn’t make much sense financially.

    Few economic arguments can be made to fund SETI, but the price differences between funding of health care, which was $2.8 trillion in 2012, and SETI, $2.5 million, show that the fundamental research uses up a minuscule amount of the government’s budget.

    Clearly, the funding for SETI is pocket change when compared with larger government institutions.

    While it seems that investing more in the program would adversely affect the economy by a microscopic amount, the benefits of investing in SETI very much outweigh the losses because it could lead to the potential of new, revolutionizing discoveries.

    The University, along with 14 other universities, has recently received a five-year, $8 million grant from NASA “to study the diversity and evolution of life on Earth,” according to an article in The Daily Illini. The funding of such a project brings to mind the possible futility in pursuing research similar to other space programs, such as SETI.

    Just as NASA research brings about important commercialized products, studying the origins of life could lead to significant improvements in industry.

    It is still unknown how molecules initially combined to form life, but perhaps the process creates a large amount of energy which could potentially fuel our cities.

    Perhaps studying the origins of life requires a new type of instrument that could provide for better medical treatment. There is a large degree of uncertainty in attempting to study the universe’s fundamental questions, but the benefits could be extraordinary.

    Luke is a freshman in engineering. He can be reached at [email protected].