Space Exploration Reaches New Milestones - for Technology and Jobs

12/09/2011 09:01 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2012
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

Despite the uncertain future of human space exploration by Americans, significant milestones have recently been reached that bode well for space exploration and the knowledge and technological innovation that stem from it. Those milestones offer significant lessons for science advancement already, but they are also good news for the future of American job growth, which has for decades been closely linked to America's scientific and technological preeminence.

The milestones include the launch of NASA's Mars-bound Curiosity in late November and the announcement in October of the next phase in development of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Both projects hold enormous promise for science advancement, but neither should be seen as important to science alone. They, and other major scientific initiatives, are the engines for the future jobs that Americans so desperately seek - not jobs for scientists but jobs at all levels that spring from science.

Where would America be today without Silicon Valley? And where would Silicon Valley -- and all of the jobs that have flowed from it -- be without U.S. space exploration?

As CNET News has reported:

(I)n the crucial early years of the Valley's technology industry, government contracts played a key role. 'Several companies in what would become Silicon Valley benefited from the ambitious goals and budget largesse of the Apollo space program,' said Dag Spicer, the senior curator of the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif. A list of companies that emerged to take advantage of NASA's work on integrated circuits would be impossible to compile today, but there's no doubt that among the biggest winners on such a list would be Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel... (T)he Apollo program turned out to be a fantastic source of technology that would eventually find its way into commercial products and applications. Also among the companies that would most benefit from the program was Hewlett-Packard.

The Associated Press captured the recent drama of the latest exploration of Mars with the following headline: "Super-size Mars rover blasts off, biggest robotic explorer ever built to roam another planet." The launch on November 26th began "an 8½-month, 354 million-mile journey... (in which) NASA's six-wheeled, one-armed wonder, Curiosity, will reach Mars next summer and use its jackhammer drill, rock-zapping laser machine and other devices to search for evidence that Earth's next-door neighbor might once have been home to the teeniest forms of life."

There are no humans onboard, but the drama is still there, given the science-fiction quality of the rover, the stunning images that are sure to follow, and the advance that it represents for humankind. While putting a human in space captured the public imagination as never before, one of the lessons from technology is that it has its own capacity to captivate, and this mission -- with a Mars landing set for this summer -- may have just "the right stuff" to recapture that public imagination.

The LSST is a marvel in its own right -- without even leaving the earth. "It's a new kind of telescope," as its website,, declares. "Its uniquely wide field of view allows it to observe large areas of the sky at once; compact and nimble, it can move quickly between images. Taking more than 800 panoramic images each night, it can cover the sky twice each week... The science that it will pursue had to wait for this new capability -- the ability to reach faint objects twenty times faster than currently possible over the entire visible sky."

In October, the LSST announced a new development in its evolution: the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and the LSST Corporation announced an agreement that establishes the LSST construction project as an operating center under AURA management. AURA now accepts fiduciary responsibility for the LSST construction phase, and this arrangement will provide the LSST with the infrastructure needed to oversee construction. Site excavation is already underway.

As President of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's oldest science foundation and a catalytic force behind the LSST, I know first-hand that this is cause for hard-earned celebration, especially for John Schaefer, Chair of the LSST Corporation and a relentless champion of the LSST from its inception. He deserves enormous recognition for having pulled together and galvanized the extraordinary collection of science institutions behind this initiative.

That's a lesson in itself -- about collaborative science and its benefits. The LSST is a public-private partnership, and while the telescope will be located in Chile for various technological reasons, its 37 member organizations include, among others, 22 U.S. universities in 14 states, five U.S. national research laboratories, and Google, as well as Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Major funders include, among others, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, Bill Gates, and the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences.

The LSST will teach us to see the universe differently, while Curiosity will help us to understand a single planet more fully. Both will help keep America at the forefront of scientific innovation.

The two projects alone are not enough; much more funding for scientific research is needed. But by increasing our scientific understanding, they are lighting the way to American prosperity -- a prosperity that depends on innovation and the exploration that it requires.