The Zero-Sum Thinking of Bernie Sanders on Space Exploration Would Doom Humanity In Both The Short & Long Run
Bernie Sanders doesn’t like Elon Musk. In some ways, I get it. It sucks to see people like Jeff Bezos buying a mega-yacht while there are people without access to clean water, decent shelter, or even regular meals elsewhere in the United States. There’s a big mistake in the man’s thinking, though.
Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don’t go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have healthcare. The level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy. https://t.co/CbMWYnPFUx
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 21, 2021
Sanders thinks that dollars spent on space are dollars that would be better spent “on Earth,” but doesn’t seem to be aware that it’s not a competition. Historically, dollars spent on space have greatly benefited people on Earth, in fact more than the money would have helped people had it been directly spent on the Earth.
Technologies That Came From Space Exploration
When a person gets in a serious accident and loses a limb, it used to be a lifetime sentence to poverty in most cases. Attempts to replace limbs with wooden or metal pegs were better than nothing, but still left someone a “peg leg” with severely limited mobility and limited economic prospects. Today, it’s still no walk in the park to lose a limb, but there are much better artificial limbs that keep people from suffering a lifetime of confinement to a wheelchair.
What led to the better limbs? Space exploration. USA Today explains that artificial muscle systems, robotic sensors, diamond-joint coatings, and temper foam all came from space programs, and are now making life easier and more meaningful for the disabled.
I have a relative with Type 1 Diabetes. It used to be that people born with this condition led short lives. Even improved insulin still left people needing to constantly test their blood sugar levels and stick themselves with needles. Advanced sensors from space programs allow my relative to leave the management of blood sugar mostly up to a machine. He still has to be careful, but the chances of him getting busy or distracted, going into low blood sugar, and then passing out and dying while out in the wilderness on a hike are a lot lower than they used to be.
Polymers created for space suits are now saving lives on Earth with better firefighting equipment. One of my cousins sometimes tells the awful story of saving a little girl from a burning house, and her hair actually melted to the outside of his fire suit. That little girl, along with countless other people who have been saved by fire personnel, would likely have died without the space programs.
The USA Today article goes on to describe other technologies, like solar panels, better tires, and water filtration systems, that came from space programs. Even sunglasses with scratch-resistant lenses came from man’s forays into space.
Climate Change & Space Programs
“Space-based research is fundamental. In the high mountain chapter, we’re able to trace changes in glaciers because satellites can actually measure the weight of glaciers,” Ben Orlove, a climate scientist told Space.com, referencing space-based research used for this special report. “The tiny variations in the Earth’s gravitational field that are caused as water’s transferred from glaciers to oceans, it can be registered by satellites,” he added.
Even if we ignore the impact solar panels (invented for space exploration) are having in the fight against climate change, just data from space is making a big difference in our understanding of the issue. Seeing how the climate changes larger weather patterns, how the impacts affect humans and animal species, and many other things would be impossible to know without access to space.
Past investments in space, while seemingly done for frivolous “we planted a flag here first” political reasons, are still helping to save humanity from one of its biggest threats.
The Deep Problem With Bernie Sanders’ Thinking On This Topic
In some ways, this goes back to the old saying: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”
If people in past generations had done things the way Bernie Sanders suggests, we’d be missing out in big ways. Humanity’s access to renewable energy, clean water, important medical devices for people with disabilities, and even life-saving firefighting equipment would all be set back. The help these technologies have given us are incalculable.
Bernie would have given people a fish (no doubt through an inefficient and poorly thought out welfare program), but things that help society move forward and give the poor more jobs and better access to true prosperity would have never occurred.
Even if the money had been diverted to healthcare, we wouldn’t have CAT scan technology without space programs, nor would we have today’s better kidney dialysis machines, among many other things. Sure, more people in the ’60s would have had immediate access to ’60s healthcare technology (after month-long waits), but today, we’d be using medical technology that didn’t advance nearly as much as it has.
What we really need to be doing is funding both intelligent aid for the poor and good space programs. Beyond being exciting, people of the future will lead better lives from the money we spend today building these space systems.
The Longer Run
Failing to fund space programs or confiscating Elon Musk’s wealth to give to the poor would not be intelligent approaches. Earth will not be inhabitable forever. One day, an asteroid or comet will strike this planet. If we somehow avoid that fate, something else will eventually happen to make it uninhabitable. If we aren’t putting people out on other celestial bodies and otherwise improving our technology, then our descendants just won’t survive. They’ll be well cared for by paternalistic “let’s spend it all on Earth” governments right up to the point they all die, though.
If we made space exploration something only governments did (because we took everything away from the wealthy who were investing in it), that would be an even bigger farce. I know there are a lot of people putting in a lot of work on NASA’s SLS program, but it’s just the latest in a series of delayed and canceled programs that are mired in political and budget issues (not unlike the last programs of a historical country Bernie heavily approved of).
The bottom line: If we did things Bernie’s way, humanity (especially the poor) would be worse off right up until our species unnecessarily went extinct. He’s not the guy we should be listening to on this topic.
Featured image by SpaceX