Science Corner: A Rocket Race Everyone Wins

rocket launch photo

Satellites and space probes are a much better use for rockets than warheads. (Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video )

Although India’s first Mars mission was a couple of years ago, the enthusiasm for Hidden Figures likely inspired a recent profile of some of the women on the team behind the mission. Getting to Mars wasn’t the end of the story, either. Last month, the Indian space agency shattered the record for most satellites launched from a single rocket, setting a new standard for cost efficiency. When other space programs are facing budget cuts and cancellation of satellite launches, proven methods for doing more with less may be in demand.

I am certainly not an expert on any of the social, economic or political dynamics of India. The profile discusses the reality that the success of the women in the space program is not representative of what many Indian women experience. Still, anything that creates and expands opportunities seems like a step in the right direction. Even if the budgets are small by comparison to other space projects, spending tens of millions to send a rocket to another planet feels extravagant compared to what could be purchased with those funds in terms of basic needs like food and clean water. Measuring the return of investment in inspiration is challenging.

The United States still has room to improve when it comes to maximizing opportunities for everyone in science and technology fields. If our own research funding in those areas does get cut back, we may have difficulty creating new opportunities. Previous NIH budget cuts resulted in fewer new researchers getting funded, to the point where special policies had to be enacted to make sure funding didn’t only go to established investigators. Fewer new researchers means fewer chances to redress existing disparities. Of course fiscal responsibility is important and not every study merits federal funding. But whatever resources we do allocate to scientific research, we need a way to consider the long-term soft benefits like inspiration. Funding organizations may very well do so, but public conversation about research spending is quick to focus on tangible products.

In your field, what indirect or soft benefits are considered when deciding which projects to pursue?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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