Should I now start obsessing over my email? I check mail once or twice a day. I don't have email alerts set up on my computer and I generally have an attitude that just because you can send me a message almost instantaneously don't expect me to reply in an instant. But all this has cost me a spot on the BBC world service twice! They run a show entitled World Have Your Say where listeners and invitees can discuss the topic on hand. I am on their list as a science and technology blogger and have received invitations to join the show, except that both times I didn't check my mail in time. It happened a few months ago when they ran a show on climate change and then again yesterday when the topic was Do You Want More Space meaning "Is space exploration a good investment". I am visiting my sister in Washington D.C. and I blissfully spent Memorial day in the great outdoors munching on burgers and spicy Thai chicken. World Have Your Say somehow muddled along without my inputs.
Having covered my ass with this explanation, now the confession. I am somewhat relieved I didn't make it to the show. See, I am not a few minutes sound byte kind of guy. I don't do too well when people ask me a question followed by a "Your time starts now!" So, I am not sure how well I would have presented my views on that show. Should we invest in space exploration? I don't see how this question is really different from the more general question on whether we should invest in science that may not give us an immediate payoff. Should all funding be only for applied sciences where future industrial, medical and other benefits are clearly definable? Should pure sciences, or projects where the benefits are difficult to quantify be continued to be funded? My answer has been and always will be an unambiguous YES. There is a more philosophical argument that humans are the most curious of all primates, always wanting to see over the real and metaphorical horizon. Exploration of all kinds just for the sake of knowledge is an important part of being human, and this drive to know more simply cannot be shut down based on purely economic arguments. But there are good practical arguments too for continuing to fund science without immediate payoffs. Unanticipated spin offs is a general way for justifying this expense. Space exploration in fact offers a great example of this. It epitomizes the philosophical argument of funding science for the sake of "the need to know what is beyond" and bolsters the practical argument since the benefits of myriad theoretical, technological and engineering breakthroughs achieved in the long R and D space programs of various countries have eventually made their way into society as applications of various kinds. Check out this NASA spin off website which details the range of industry areas that have commercialized NASA technology intially developed for the purpose of space exploration. Within the broad area of funding space exploration one can always argue for funding one specific project over another based on merit but to ask a question whether space exploration itself should be funded is to put limits on our imagination and constraints on future benefits. India's space program so far has been of the applied kind, more geared towards earth applications than space exploration. It too has led to societal benefits most notably in meteorology and natural resource applications and transfer of technology. A recent post claims around 268 technology transfers to Indian industry from India's space program. I found some informative articles related to the economic benefits of the program here and here.
The question "Is Space Exploration a Good Investment" is of relevance now to India as it prepares to launch the unmanned Moon mission, its first real space exploration project. Will there be benefits from this or should we use that money for other "more practical purposes". To me the benefits are already accruing even before the launch. NASA is collaborating in this project by contributing three sensors and no doubt some knowledge transfer as well. Several other European countries are contributing other types of sensors. Indian space scientists have long been an isolated bunch and such collaborative ventures can only benefit us in terms of expanded perspectives, knowledge and technology transfers. Contrary to perception that the project is exorbitantly expensive it takes up a fraction of the total ISRO budget, about 2% of the total outlay in the 10th five year plan.
Could I have said all this on my two minutes to fame spot on the BBC. I doubt it. It took me 30 minutes with a tea break to dish this out :-)