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Is NASA a waste of money?


Why should we spend money on NASA when we already have so many problems here on Earth? If somebody asked you this question, how would you answer? It’s been nearly five years since I left But I came back to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory today to help answer this tough question But before I even get to the five reasons I think we should spend money on NASA I need to clear one thing up. What percentage of the US budget Do you think goes to NASA? According to polls most Americans think it’s 20 percent so it should come as no surprise That one in four Americans think that NASA’s budget should be reduced. If you say the total budget represents a dollar or 100 pennies The truth is NASA gets less than one-half of one penny. For comparison, 16% goes to the military and 60% goes to social programs like Social Security, unemployment, Medicare and health care. Okay, so if that is our foundation Let me give you five incredible things that we get in return for that half a percent or less than nine dollars a year for most Americans Just like some might ask Why should we spend time exploring space when we have so many problems here on Earth? Some of our ancestors probably asked “Why should we waste time trying to figure out agriculture when we have so much work to do hunting and gathering?” or “Why should we spend so much time messing around in boats when we have so many issues here on the land?” And the answer to all three of these questions is the same: Reaching for new heights often creates new solutions and opportunities for people back on the ground, and I have some personal experience with this concept As most of you guys know by now, I spent seven of my nine years here at NASA working on the Curiosity rover in fact some of my hardware is still working like a champ on the top deck of the rover I’ll be it a little dirtier since I touched it last but for my last two years here I worked on a much lesser known project called SMAP and in some ways I’m more proud of what it represents because SMAP is a super complex Earth orbiting satellite. Here’s how it works. Once it’s in orbit the antenna boom is deployed and in this 20 foot gold mesh reflector Origamis out like one of those Hoberman’s sphere toys, and then the whole thing starts freaking spinning at 15 rpm And it’s using a Radiometer that can see through the clouds to measure the soil moisture levels on earth This is important because soil moisture is one of the key vital signs of the planet. By measuring the moisture levels in the soil, it allows you to predict droughts, monitor floods and even predict crop yields for a given year and because the antenna spins around like that, you’re able to measure all the soil on Earth every two to three days. So I left before it actually launched in 2015, so the reason I am here today is to follow up with some SMAP research scientists to see how things turned out I’ve been to many countries in Africa. People know about SMAP and the national government of those countries are trying to use it especially for drought especially for crop monitoring. So NASA has a data access policy of you know making it free for everybody There are three major cereal crop on the earth wheat, rice and corn. If you can forecast these three major crops So you know 70-80 percent of you know forecast you can do the crop field of the whole world. What Narenda is saying here is Remarkable to me, and it sums up my first point perfectly SMAP costs to 900 million dollars Africa is the continent with the most extreme poverty today. I did the math and for 900 million dollars You could feed all of Africa for less than a day But instead we invested in research and technology which empowers them to better help themselves Increasing the amount of food they can make on their own For decades as opposed to a one-time fleeting handout. Of the 37 missions currently running at JPL I think it’s so cool that about half are studying and helping earth, just like SMAP This is a fancy way of saying We should be doing everything within our power to make sure that nothing catastrophically bad happens to us Hollywood got this right when they said that a large asteroid impact would be really bad news. Now the chances of this happening are small But the potential consequences are so large just ask these guys It makes sense to take it seriously. NASA has already put an asteroid early warning detection system in place and in October 2022 for the first time ever they will test ramming a Spacecraft into an asteroid to see if you can deflect it off course with a mission called DART But perhaps an even bigger threat to humans are humans one of the goals of all of the Rovers that we sent to Mars is to gather data on what It would take for humans to live there Establishing a permanent human outpost on Mars would serve sort of like a backup hard drive for your computer in case something catastrophically bad happened here on earth America’s first satellite was built here at JPL and now satellites make it so we can get GPS driving directions on our phone or get TV beamed down to us from space or predict the path of hurricanes with much greater accuracy Theword pixel in the concept of the first digital camera was also invented at JPL in the 1960s when an engineer was trying to solve how to get pictures of the planets and send them back to earth In fact there are nearly 2,000 NASA technology spin-offs We don’t know what we don’t know and so expecting NASA to justify its funding But predicting all the amazing things it will discover would be like Expecting Christopher Columbus when he was lobbying Queen Isabella for ships to predict the polio vaccine or Netflix Of the 18 billion that NASA gets it’s not like they’re just putting that money on a rocket and launching it into space The Majority of that money goes towards the salaries of Tens of thousands of some of America’s most skilled workers and one of the counter arguments here is yeah But why do we need the government to fund these programs? Why not let private companies do the innovating? Private space companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin are awesome And they play an important role But they’re incentivized to pursue technologies that will give them a return on investment like space tourism or asteroid mining or launching satellites for other organizations there’s just no incentive for a private company to invest in tracking and Deflecting asteroids or investing in earth science missions like SMAP and then making the data Available for free to anyone who needs it. So to recap for that less than half a penny from a dollar Investment in NASA, not only do we improve life on Earth through projects like SMAP and protect ourselves against really catastrophic Events and discover other incredible technologies to improve our lives along the way But the money to make all that happen goes back into growing the economy through the salaries of all the smart people doing their work. And my fifth and final reason why we Should spend money on NASA even when we still have unsolved problems here on earth is perhaps the most important even if less concrete Think it’s captured best by what some call the most important picture ever taken What you see here is the result of a 10-day exposure image from the Hubble Deep Space Telescope with the exception of these three dots which are single stars Every speck, smudge, and spiral you see in this image is a galaxy with hundreds of billions of stars Just like our own Milky Way galaxy Most remarkably the field of view captured here is the darkest part of the night sky the size of Roosevelt’s eye on a dime Held at arm’s length we send men to the moon and orbiters to Saturn and Rovers to Mars Not necessarily because there’s some financial incentive or some quick payoff We’re looking to exploit, but because as humans there are fundamental burning questions we’re eager to answer The first person to set foot on Mars is alive right now. They could be in junior high or high school He or she could be watching this video right now It could be you I feel that our continued exploration of space in all its forms fills me with hope and inspires me to reach higher and makes me a better person I want to thank Bill and Melinda Gates for teaming up with me on this video if you want to know why they think there’s still a Case for being an optimist in today’s world even with all the negative headlines you should check out the Bill and Melinda Gates Annual letter at gatesletter.com this optimism stems from facts like the number of children who die every year has been cut in half so has extreme poverty declining by half in less than twenty years and more children are attending school now than ever before but we’re Optimistic not just because we know life used to be worse It’s seeing the positive trend line of all the ongoing work by brilliant folks like at NASA and elsewhere Who are working to improve life on Earth by solving some of the world’s toughest challenges I will leave a link to the letter in the video description


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