At the time of the moon landing in 1969, many people envisioned that by the beginning of the 21st century, space travel would become routine, and we would be visiting other planets in our solar system and perhaps even daring to venture into interstellar space.
Sadly, that future hasn’t yet arrived. In fact, some people have started to question whether we need space travel anymore. Wasn’t going to the moon good enough? Maybe the U.S. should leave space exploration to private companies — or even other countries.
But those who’ve long dreamed of humans becoming a truly spacefaring race argue that exploring space provides down-to-earth benefits in areas such as health, mining and security. And more inspirational benefits, too. Here are some of the most compelling arguments for continuing the exploration of space.
If we don’t want to go the way of the dinosaurs someday, we need to protect ourselves against the threat of being hit by a big asteroid. According to NASA, typically about once every 10,000 years, a rocky or iron asteroid the size of a football field could smash into our planet’s surface and possibly cause tidal waves big enough to inundate coastal areas.
But it’s the real monsters — asteroids about 100 meters (109 yards) across or bigger— that we really have to fear. Such a collision would unleash a firestorm of heated debris and fill the atmosphere with sun-blocking dust, which would wipe out forests and farm fields and starve the human and animal life that it didn’t immediately kill. A wisely funded space program enables us to spot a dangerous object long before it strikes Earth, and send a spacecraft to plant and detonate a nuclear explosion that could nudge it off its collision course [sources: NASA, NSS].
A very long list of gadgets, materials and processes originally were developed for the U.S. space program but found other applications back on Earth — so many that NASA has an office that looks for ways to repurpose space technology as products. We all know about freeze-dried food, but there are plenty of others. In the 1960s, for example, NASA scientists developed a plastic coated with a metallic reflecting agent. When used in a blanket, it reflects about 80 percent of a user’s body heat back to him or her — an ability that helps accident victims and post-marathon runners to stay warm.
Another more obscure but valuable innovation is nitinol, a flexible but resilient alloy that was developed to enable satellites to spring open after being folded into a rocket. Today, orthodontists equip patients with braces made from the material [source: Independent].