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Thinking at 0 m/s: Novelty leads fight against Space

By Michael Kim and Sang Ho Lee

To explore outer space today, sacrifices must be made both politically and financially. Space exploration organizations like NASA are beholden to parent organizations like Congress. NASA is also on a strict budget. Recently, corporations have entered the fray, trying their hand at the space race. Indeed, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in the near future. But Musk, like NASA, is held back by something incredibly fundamental: the laws of gravity. The limitation comes with the fact that, to reach the stars, humans resort to flinging ignited fuel on the ground at high speeds. But what many people do not realize is that the technology to bypass this hurdle is not new—it’s the idea that’s novel.

The solution is the space elevator. While the idea has been around for a long time, it has only ever been science fiction. In fact, the idea of a space elevator was first conceived as early as 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Soviet rocket scientist. By constructing an extremely tall structure made of ultra-light and ultra-strong material such as Kevlar or diamond nanothreads, humans could theoretically transport spacecraft into orbit without having to go through liftoff. This could save billions of dollars spent currently on space programs. The idea is still theoretical, but the design is practical, the materials have been synthesized, and opportunities evaluated. But the idea is still just that—an idea. And this is not a result of our limitations, but instead due to a fear of everything novel.

The crux of the matter is that space exploration is also a theoretical idea. In Congress, it has bipartisan support. Republicans and Democrats alike agree that spending money on space exploration is a key part of what makes the US a technological powerhouse. But the politics have undermined the agreement. Both parties agree that it’s a great program, but both parties also agree that any failures are indicative of government inefficiency. A missed rocket test, a failed launch, or a botched mission plan all become significant political weaknesses, and neither Democrats nor Republicans wish to take the risk of being the scapegoat in a political scandal.

The fear of such novel ideas is not unwarranted. Some dispute the feasibility of the space elevator, citing technological hurdles we have yet to pass. But the response to such concerns has not been renewed investment into the program, researching possible solutions. It has been woefully lacking and misguided. The facts tell the story. The 10-year Pluto mission launched by NASA cost $720 million at the end of the day. It has answered questions about planetary physics and dwarf-planet composition. In contrast, the US Bank Stadium, housed in Minneapolis, cost over $1.06 billion to construct. It’s contribution to society? Entertainment value from watching athletes batter themselves against one another.

Of course, the question of space exploration has never been an easy question to answer. Critics have historically pointed fingers at the government as if to say, “Spend the money on Earth, not elsewhere.” But it is high time that even the staunchest opponent of space exploration concedes that a little investment can go a long way—upwards. There will always be opposition to progress, but world leaders should learn to grab the chance for progress when a technological leap lends tremendous opportunities. In this case, it is not a question of whether science and technology can assist mankind in making progress. It’s a question of whether we are smart enough to take the chance.

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