Why Investments in Space Exploration are Necessary

By Ara Kim

     The James Webb telescope is one of our most significant advances in space science, giving us more detailed views of the early universe than ever before. The sheer complexity of the telescope has been the reason behind the two decades-long construction, taking an estimated $10 billion to develop. However, with such a high price behind its construction, it raises a controversial question: is space exploration worth the multi-billion dollar investments when we have yet to solve so many ongoing world problems?


     No matter where you look on the globe, numerous problems exist that need fixing: climate change, poverty, epidemics, inequality, world hunger, terrorism—the list is endless. Moreover, the number of people affected by these problems is immense. For one, according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 2.3 billion people struggled with severe food insecurity in 2021, which is “350 million more compared to before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.” If this trend continues, there will be millions more in the future suffering from hunger. How can solutions to something like this be implemented? What kinds of changes will we need to help those millions in need, and how soon can things be changed? 


The greatest photo ever taken of Stephan’s Quintet, a massive cluster of 5 galaxies first discovered in 1877. Taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

     When examining these societal issues, it’s essential to acknowledge that they are also a matter of politics and innovation. Because such problems encompass large, diverse populations, solutions require long-term investment from prominent world leaders who can provide ample funding. Sure, convenient forms of activism like spreading awareness through social media and donating can help, but it isn't enough to spark real change. For instance, African countries are known for their food shortages, which are rooted in political turmoil and climate shocks. Yet, despite missionaries providing humanitarian help by the thousands to nations like Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya, there are still severe droughts, diminished rainfall, and deteriorating agricultural seasons. The problem is too complex for any small group to tackle alone. Thus, interest from international governments would be more effective—larger organizations have the money and power to implement laws and negotiate for change with these developing countries. 


     It’s also very difficult to get the public to stay interested in these problems even if they comprehend their severity. The concept of climate change has been around since the early 20th century, but not enough has been done about it. Its effects are so distant relative to the lives of individuals that many people don’t see climate change as an urgent threat. Thus, many value the issue less than they should and lack the motivation to support the difficult work needed to implement solutions.


     On the other hand, space exploration effortlessly grabs the public’s interest—who wouldn’t be curious about what scientists have discovered about our universe? After the photos taken by the James Webb telescope were released to the public on July 12th this year, the internet blew up on the subject. Wherever anyone looked—TikTok, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, or the news—people were talking about the images. There was no need for modern activism to spread awareness about the telescope and its pictures; people simply wanted to know. 


     Not only does it capture the imagination of the general public, but space exploration companies also inspire people to pursue careers in science and technology, therefore increasing economic prosperity. Advancements such as the recent images require scientists, engineers, and astrophysicists to create technology capable of high precision and success rate. In doing so, they provide society with opportunities to invent better appliances and technical systems, along with unique discoveries about nature and the world around us. Despite the lack of a direct connection to human suffering on Earth, it is a step in the right direction to solving such problems as a catalyst for motivation and technological advancement. As Ethan Siegel, a journalist from Forbes, puts it, “The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts...” In short, space exploration is the push we need to improve our technology to better society.


     Solving world hunger or climate change is no easy feat. It demands more knowledge in physics, economics, chemistry, biology, and even astronomy than we know today. To achieve the goal of someday eradicating the world of its current problems, it’s necessary to support something people are motivated to work towards so that we, as a society, can advance. When following this line of thinking, space exploration can be viewed as worthy of the billion-dollar investments used and essential to ending global issues.