The National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Exploring space, Improving Human Life
One of the major thrusts of current developments in science and technology include molecular research and investigations that find significance in maintaining good health and in curing diseases. These encompass molecular discoveries in the minutest structure of the cell or of the atom, the functional mechanisms of its tiny components and the structure of other molecules that promise to revolutionize the medical field, enhance our well being and simplify our lifestyles. The major US government agency responsible for studies in health and medicine is the National Institute of Health (NIH) and it has been estimated that the US 2008 budget of government projects on exploring molecular structures and medical research through the NIH and its sub agencies has reached $28 billion this year (Health Budget: US Federal Government, 2008).
Consequently, as scientists dig deeper into the details of the framework of matter and the human body, other groups of scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have also zealously expanded our territorial realm from Earth to outer space. NASA has continuously enlightened human beings of discoveries from the vast regions of the Milky Way and, even more enormous, the space around it. In fact, as scientists tread the path to studying the nanostructures of matter, astronomers have revealed a clearer picture of space and other heavenly bodies from many light years away. Because of these events, future discoveries are not unidirectional. Instead, scientific researches have focused both on micro- and on nanostructures that compose and interact with living bodies and macrostructures that exist outside the earth’s sphere. Therefore, since there are minimal budgetary constraints that limit the expanse of molecular research at NIH, there should equally be few financial issues to restrict studies on space investigations and phenomena at NASA.
At present, from an annual budget of less than $100 million during its institution in 1958, the average budget of NASA has grown to a value nearing 12 billion dollars annually and nearing $17 billion in 2008 (US Office of Management and Budget, 2007). Unfortunately, this is just a petty fraction of the total expenditures for the military combat in Iraq which already falls at around $450 billion (National Priorities Project). The allocation of NASA from the government, thus, just barely reaches 4% of the enormous allocation for the Iraq war while, for comparison, the NIH budget is just around 6% of this amount. Supporters of the NASA budget cut in congress has contended that the maintenance cost of NASA projects are too expensive and wasteful and that future endeavors are not valuable to humankind (Donohue, 2004). This paper cites the advantages of providing ample funding for the development of this field and the impact of its studies, projects and explorations to human beings and our civilization.
Goals and mandate of NASA
NASA is a government institution aimed at pioneering and propelling research and discoveries of space and aeronautics. It has evolved from the National Committee of Space and Aeronautics by the action of then US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. They have since developed equipment and discovered materials for aeronautics applications, satellites that monitor weather and facilitate global communication, and sent exploratory missions to discover habitable territories for humans in the future. NASA has further divided its current tasks to four different categories namely, aeronautics, exploration systems, science and space operations (NASA, 2005). Among the past endeavors of NASA to fulfill its goals include planet and other heavenly body missions, satellite programs and space stations. Examples include Apollo, a mission to send astronauts on the moon; sending satellites to orbit the Earth such as Explorer, Fast Auroral Snapshot Explorer (FAST), Far UV Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) and the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS). NASA space missions to survey other planets consist of Galileo (mission to Jupiter), the Mars Global Surveyor, Viking, Mars Pathfinder, Pioneer and Pioneer Venus among others. In addition, the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) Mission and the Topex Mission aim to study climate changes, atmospheric patterns, ocean behavior and the effect of the magnetic portion of the atmosphere to solar wind. Space stations, shuttles and program such as the International Space Station, Space Shuttle and Skylab (NASA Missions, 2007) are just a few examples of the projects taken on by NASA which have enriched our knowledge of space and enforce a tighter security for our planet as well.
Unfailing human interest of heavenly bodies
Our ancestors have long implicated the position of heavenly bodies and the appearance and position of the moon and stars on agriculture and cropping seasons (Harrison et al., 1999). Hopefuls and romantics have wished on falling stars with the hope of making their dreams come true and older people have predicted the coming of rain by the presence of rings around the moon. These beliefs have stemmed mainly from the unquenchable curiosity of humans to discover and explain the presence and significance of the objects in the sky and find out what else is present in the space above. Today, because of advanced technologies, humans are slowly inching their way to discerning space and viewing it differently. Now, for human beings, the sky is not just a vast sheet of blue and gray space with occasional white swirling clouds, instead we know there is more to it outside and we are yet to see its fringes. Through NASA’s manned and unmanned exploratory missions to outer space and the introduction of powerful imaging tools such as satellites, robotics and telescopes, we have a clearer understanding and mental picture of the composition of the space outside our territory. Thus, because of NASA, we have a slight idea of our place in the universe and the tiny area which we occupy in it.
Inspiring future scientists
In relation to NASA’s Office of Education motto of “Shaping the Future: Launching New Endeavors to Inspire the Next Generation of Explorers”, further development and space explorations conducted by NASA constantly inspires young students and budding space explorers to pursue science, math, physics, engineering and astrology as a field of study. Topics such as discoveries and human excursions to the Moon and Mars have fascinated and inspired many people worldwide. Powerful telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the earth are examples of equipment used by NASA that have generated vivid images of space, heavenly bodies and the Earth which continue to awe young and old people alike. The Hubble Telescope is not affected by atmospheric interferences and has the ability see UV light coming into the earth through the ozone layer. Unfortunately, maintenance costs of the Hubble Space Telescope have been minimized and budgets for its service have been slashed (Berger, 2005). Because of this, NASA has faced constraints in terms of creativity, innovation and progress. However, the birth of future scientist and their need to be fed with insight and motivation should inspire NASA to discover technologies that will engage public awareness and curiosity and will take the public to a whole new series of exciting discoveries about the outer space, a goal that will truly require government funding and support (Harrison et al, 1999).
Evaluating environmental damage from space
NASA satellites also allow scientists to constantly conduct assessments of the Earth’s vital signs from afar (Harrison et al., 1999). Through measurements and detection methods made by NASA’s equipment sensors, the fast rate of the disappearance of West Antarctic glaciers was observed in 2004. This is a major cause of alarm and is indicative of the massive effects of global warming in the Earth’s atmosphere. This phenomenon can result in catastrophic increases of global sea levels (Thomas et al., 2004). NASA also has the ability to measure the concentration and composition of gases in the atmosphere. Scientific data provides evidence that fires around the world caused by the El Niño phenomenon is a major factor accountable for the increase in levels of greenhouse gases. Scientists have also observed that the majority of forest fires occur in the Southeast Asian region. It is responsible for a big chunk of the emission of greenhouse gases at 60%, followed by Central and South America (30%), and lastly by North America and Eurasia (10%). NASA’s system of monitoring global temperatures and greenhouse gases is also an important tool for discovering the processes involved in climate change. Since we are currently observing drastic changes in season, weather and temperatures around the globe, an in-depth understanding of the mechanisms underlying these processes including measures to prevent these worsening weather conditions should be underway (Randerson et al., 2004). The vivid view of the earth also features movement and concentration of winds and rains that could visualize and possibly determine the sources of weather disturbances such as storms and hurricanes as a function of geography and temperature. These pictures are also tools to predict the movement of winds or storms and, thus, aid in prevent damage to properties and lives. NASA mentions that weather forecasts can also be done even a year in advance. Using advanced equipment, different organizations including NASA have also made it possible to look into the core of a depression and study the driving force and energies that propel a storm. Daily weather updates are also produced from these figures (NASA Top Story, 2004).
NASA has collaborated with universities to put up the Northeast Application of Useable Technology In Land planning for Urban Sprawl (NAUTILUS), a program that would allow the government to utilize data from satellites and utilize it for an effective system of roads, transit, irrigation, electricity, housing and others in urban areas. This organized system ensures that city planners understand and can access NASA data in order to utilize it for designing the optimal proximity and a cost-effective mechanism for running a city, identify barren regions and develop areas that can still be used for agriculture or forestry, as well as introduce zoning guidelines for urban areas (Barry, 2002). NASA’s satellites can also evaluate the levels of lakes and other bodies of water. This is a vital tool for fishing industries, agriculturists and plant scientists to determine faculties for irrigation of crops and other plants (NASA Top Story, 2004). Thus, NASA also plays a role in food security and agriculture. It acts as an environmental envoy which has the ability to oversee changes in the physical structure of the earth and allows us to be aware of the silent yet destructive changes that occur.
One of the most interesting effects generated by the picturesque view of the earth from outer space taken from Apollo is a global call for saving the environment. The photograph, which depicts the earth as a sphere of green and blue patches with white swirls of atmospheric movement has been an emblem of nature protection and symbolizes the beauty and uniqueness of the earth (Seigel, 2006). It has become a badge of human awareness of the plight of the earth and our commitment to preserve it.
Applying tools for molecular discoveries and analyses
In addition, even though molecular discoveries seem a far topic from NASA’s mission to explore space, Samanta and Liang (2004), both from the NASA Advances Supercomputing Division, have utilized their expertise and devised a way to determine the functions of biomolecules, specifically proteins, through mathematical algorithms analyzing protein interactions. They have also provided an interactive tool for protein analysis, which biochemists can access online (www.nas.nasa.gov/bio) to examine any protein sequence and predict its function. The algorithm is also proven to delimit false positives and is independent of the quantity of molecules it can interact with. It may also provide a format for protein functional analysis which can be a start off point for other analytical tools in protein chemistry. Other molecules such as the ozone depleting chlorine monoxide dimmer has been studied extensively because of the advanced technology of NASA to determine the concentration of components in the atmosphere. Through these methods, scientists can further study the levels of ozone in the atmosphere, identify molecules that react with ozone and institutionalize protective measures to prevent its depletion (NASA Top Story, 2004).
Studies of the different effects of conditions in space, such as limited gravity, to plant and human metabolism are also a major focus point. Tripathy et al. (1996) have studied the effect of space conditions on the growth of plants and adds to further knowledge on the process of photosynthesis, light absorption and electron transport mechanisms, and organelles that aid plants during these stresses. Iellamo et al. (2006), on the other hand, observes the effect of prolonged exposure to microgravity and space conditions on human tissue, skeletal and muscular function injury and atrophy and blood fluid dynamics. This study provides interesting insights on the role of exercise to minimize the negative physical effects of conditions in space. These conditions of deteriorating physical functions are similar to human aging symptoms and tissue corrosion. Thus, NASA researches and studies have added information to other branches of knowledge, such as health, medicine, biology, plant physiology, biochemistry, proteomics, bioinformatics and others and have aided in investigations of factors that would have, otherwise, been ignored.
Discovering other intelligent life forms and Earth-like territories
Humans’ fascination that we are not alone has spurred missions to discover evidence of other life in space. These discoveries will significantly change our perspective on life. NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which was terminated by the government in 1993, has made important findings that have significant implications in evolution, social science, biology and many other fields. The social effects of alien discovery as evidenced by the presence of embedded microorganisms on a piece of rock which came from a collision of a meteorite and planet Mars is crucial to the belief of many scientists that other forms of life outside our atmosphere can exist (Seigel, 2006). In addition, one of the most significant implications of these findings involves our awareness that there can be other habitable regions in space which could answer our fears of depleting the Earth’s natural resources. The difficulty of finding this evidence and elusiveness of this knowledge are important messages that should emphasize our uniqueness in the universe and should have compounded our conviction to value our life and our planet. According to social science, human nature and behavior is a drive that propels the need to search and evolve. Exploring space has allowed humans to discover the exceptionality and distinctness of our niche and gives us a sense of value and belief on a higher power that has magnificently planned our existence. Thus, as we find out more about space, we learn about ourselves and appreciate our means for survival and being. Through the missions, humans also continuously discover the universal mechanisms of life (Seigel, 2006). Future unearthing of information, possibly actually discovering extra terrestrial beings and existence may probably shatter existing norms and break barriers, not to mention, require a total overhaul of biological systems of classification. In time, a cultural revolution could occur, similar to the emergence of groups incited by aliens and abductions, to movie flicks of alien invasion and world annihilation and television series about unusual human powers that originate from extra terrestrial human studies and testing – evidence that space discoveries could alter our culture and deepen our meaning.
Harrison et al. (1999), predicts ideas that are similar to sci-fi films and series like The Enterprise and Star Wars, where a whole new civilization will be introduced because of our desire for survival and continued existence. The report predicts human access to space tours and travels and allows interaction with other life forms creating a mega diverse array of cultures and peoples, even language and beliefs. However farfetched this idea may seem, it is still a possibility in the coming years, but humans are yet to discover evidence of actual intelligent beings before this idea is realized.
Initiating researches in materials science, computer science and physics
Due to NASA’s aims of establishing farther grounds and territories in space, scientists have continued to discover new materials and technology as well as alternate sources of energy (Seigel, 2006). The objectives stimulate future technological discoveries for a faster spacecraft, longer retention times in space, safer landing, protective and lighter materials, durable clothing and materials and food appropriate for space missions. For example, new materials and technology has been developed to analyze sunspots that have perplexed even Galileo. The Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) uses sound waves to generate images and evaluate energy levels in a specific region of the sun. Scientists have elucidated the mechanism of the continuity of sunspots through this machine. They found that sunspots are composed of plasma moving in cycles on the surface of the sun that driven by magnetic energy (Beasley et al., 2001). These materials allow scientists at NASA to characterize matter discovered from outer space and understand its mechanism. This way, the materials are given identities that can allow us to apply them for specific purposes or discover new materials for specific functions – a procedure that even biochemists use in order to tailor novel molecules for important uses.
Formulating a dependable life support system is also an important task of scientists in order to support the missions to bring human and plant life into space (Tripathy et al., 1996). This would ensure normal living functions and mechanisms despite unfamiliar conditions to both plants and animals. Consequently, NASA is investing on the development of super computers that have the ability to quickly analyze data. These computers have cut financial resources and time that would have been expended for research. They have continually defied and stretched the limits of computational science in order to provide state of the art analytical tools used for modeling, climate prediction, space shuttle designs, robotics and others (SGI and NASA, 2002).
One of the most important advances of space and aeronautics studies that have astounding impacts on human lifestyles include networks that ensure efficient global communication and positioning systems that synchronize time, assist the routing aircrafts, vehicles and humans, predict weather disturbance and allow access to events at different positions in the globe (Harrison et al., 1999).
Astrobiology and its implications
The introduction of the field of astrobiology has created a great impact on many facets of life, resulting in a unified analysis that incorporated many different fields into astronomy to gain a holistic perspective of space discoveries. NASA employed the help of experts from different fields to assess the impact of its studies and discoveries on humans. Politics and religion can also be affected. In fact, knowledge of astrobiology has the ability to unfold the details of the concept of evolution and understand how the universe and life began, a phenomenon which has been studied by biologists and physicists since time immemorial. In addition, it allows us to build preparations for the effect of future discoveries of intelligent life forms on human behavior and existence and avoid any untoward reactions, panic and misunderstanding that can result from future findings (Harrison et al., 1999). Astronomers also have a big role to play in the world’s history, for example, when Pluto was removed from the category of the planets, through the votes of less than five percent of the world’s astronomers, a global overhaul of science books resulted. Despite debates, this decision resulted in enforcing a strict category of heavenly bodies that include Planets, dwarf planets and small solar system bodies (Britt, 2006).
Government support for NASA is inevitable for conducting and completing its many endeavors to fulfill its goal of pioneering space explorations. NASA’s causes, projects and missions are far more important to be slowed down or eliminated by government budget cuts. NASA has been an important institution that has fed curious minds with inspiration, given value to our existence, incited revolutions in the geophysical and astronomical fields, promoted awareness for protecting the environment, provided tools for accurate climate forecasts and has played roles in advancing many other fields such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, biology and social science.
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