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Rockets Top Submarines: Space Exploration Dollars Dwarf Ocean Spending

By Michael Conathan, Guest Contributor  

"Rockets Top Submarines: Space Exploration Dollars Dwarf Ocean Spending"

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Credit: AP Photo/NOAA

Via the Center for American Progress

“Star Trek” would have us believe that space is the final frontier, but with apologies to the armies of Trekkies, their oracle might be a tad off base. Though we know little about outer space, we still have plenty of frontiers to explore here on our home planet. And they’re losing the race of discovery.

Hollywood giant James Cameron, director of mega-blockbusters such as “Titanic” and “Avatar,” brought this message to Capitol Hill last week, along with the single-seat submersible that he used to become the third human to journey to the deepest point of the world’s oceans — the Marianas Trench. By contrast, more than 500 people have journeyed into space — including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who sits on the committee before which Cameron testified — and 12 people have actually set foot on the surface of the moon.

All it takes is a quick comparison of the budgets for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to understand why space exploration is outpacing its ocean counterpart by such a wide margin.

In fiscal year 2013 NASA’s annual exploration budget was roughly $3.8 billion. That same year, total funding for everything NOAA does — fishery management, weather and climate forecasting, ocean research and management, among many other programs — was about $5 billion, and NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research received just $23.7 million. Something is wrong with this picture.

Space travel is certainly expensive. But as Cameron proved with his dive that cost approximately $8 million, deep-sea exploration is pricey as well. And that’s not the only similarity between space and ocean travel: Both are dark, cold, and completely inhospitable to human life.

Yet space travel excites Americans’ imaginations in a way ocean exploration never has. To put this in terms Cameron may be familiar with, just think of how stories are told on screens both big and small: Space dominates, with “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” and “2001 A Space Odyssey.” Then there are B-movies such as “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and everything ever mocked on “Mystery Science Theater 2000.” There are even parodies: “Spaceballs,” “Galaxy Quest,” and “Mars Attacks!” And let’s not forget Cameron’s own contributions: “Aliens” and “Avatar.”

When it comes to the ocean, we have “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Sponge Bob Square Pants,” and Cameron’s somewhat lesser-known film “The Abyss.” And that’s about it.

This imbalance in pop culture is illustrative of what plays out in real life.

We rejoiced along with the NASA mission-control room when the Mars rover landed on the red planet late last year. One particularly exuberant scientist, known as “Mohawk Guy” for his audacious hairdo, became a minor celebrity and even fielded his share of spontaneous marriage proposals. But when Cameron bottomed out in the Challenger Deep more than 36,000 feet below the surface of the sea, it was met with resounding indifference from all but the dorkiest of ocean nerds such as myself.

Part of this incongruity comes from access. No matter where we live, we can go outside on a clear night, look up into the sky, and wonder about what’s out there. We’re presented with a spectacular vista of stars, planets, meteorites, and even the occasional comet or aurora. We have all been wishing on stars since we were children. Only the lucky few can gaze out at the ocean from their doorstep, and even those who do cannot see all that lies beneath the waves.

As a result, the facts about ocean exploration are pretty bleak. Humans have laid eyes on less than 5 percent of the ocean, and we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of America’s exclusive economic zone — the undersea territory reaching out 200 miles from our shores.

Sure, space is sexy. But the oceans are too. To those intrigued by the quest for alien life, consider this: Scientists estimate that we still have not discovered 91 percent of the species that live in our oceans. And some of them look pretty outlandish. Go ahead and Google the deepsea hatchetfish, frill shark, or Bathynomus giganteus.

In a time of shrinking budgets and increased scrutiny on the return for our investments, we should be taking a long, hard look at how we are prioritizing our exploration dollars. If the goal of government spending is to spur growth in the private sector, entrepreneurs are far more likely to find inspiration down in the depths of the ocean than up in the heavens. The ocean already provides us with about half the oxygen we breathe, our single largest source of protein, a wealth of mineral resources, key ingredients for pharmaceuticals, and marine biotechnology.

Of course space exportation does have benefits beyond the “cool factor” of putting people on the moon and astronaut-bards playing David Bowie covers in space. Inventions created to facilitate space travel have become ubiquitous in our lives — cell-phone cameras, scratch-resistant lenses, and water-filtration systems, just to name a few — and research conducted in outer space has led to breakthroughs here on earth in the technological and medical fields. Yet despite far-fetched plans to mine asteroids for rare metals, the only tangible goods brought back from space to date remain a few piles of moon rocks.

The deep seabed is a much more likely source of so-called rare-earth metals than distant asteroids. Earlier this year the United Nations published its first plan for management of mineral resources beneath the high seas that are outside the jurisdiction of any individual country. The United States has not been able to participate in negotiations around this policy because we are not among the 185 nations that have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs such activity.

With or without the United States on board, the potential for economic development in the most remote places on the planet is vast and about to leap to the next level. Earlier this year Japan announced that it has discovered a massive supply of rare earth both within its exclusive economic zone and in international waters. This follows reports in 2011 that China sent at least one exploratory mission to the seabed beneath international waters in the Pacific Ocean. There is a real opportunity for our nation to lead in this area, but we must invest and join the rest of the world in creating the governance structure for these activities.

Toward the end of last week’s hearing, Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who chairs the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, hypothetically asked where we would be today if we had spent half as much money exploring the oceans as we have spent exploring space. Given the current financial climate in Congress, we won’t find the answer to his question on Capitol Hill.

But there may be another way.

Cameron is currently in preproduction on the second and third “Avatar” films. He says the former will be set on an ocean planet. No one except he and his fellow producers at 20th Century Fox really know how much the first installment of the movie series cost, but estimates peg it at approximately $250 million — or 10 times the total funding for NOAA’s Ocean Exploration program. Since the original “Avatar” grossed more than $2 billion at the box office worldwide, if NASA isn’t willing to hand over a bit of its riches to help their oceanic co-explorers, maybe Cameron and his studio partners can chip a percent or two off the gross from “Avatar 2” to help fill the gap.

Come to think of it, if the key to exploring the oceans hinges either on Hollywood giving up profits or Congress increasing spending, maybe we are more likely to mine asteroids after all.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Judy Li, an intern at the Center for American Progress, contributed to this work.

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10 Responses to Rockets Top Submarines: Space Exploration Dollars Dwarf Ocean Spending

  1. DaveE says:

    “maybe Cameron and his studio partners can chip a percent or two off the gross from “Avatar 2” to help fill the gap”–great idea! If Cameron did that, and publicized it, I might see the movie twice in the theaters, otherwise, I might wait for the DVD. Could be that the increase in revenue would offset the cost of funding the research. This still does not excuse the government from cutting back on research. At a time when private business just does not need people because of improvements in productivity (and outsourcing) the government needs to increase public employment, not decrease it, and research is one area that is best done by government in any case.

  2. rollin says:

    Not much is being spent by governments on saving the ecosystem from pollution, development and global warming. Much more is being spent on producing the materials that cause the problems?
    Human psychology is mostly driven by shiny objects and attractive ideas. Apparently cars, electronics, planes and such are much more attractive than trees, flowers, clean water, good food and a planet you can live on.
    Same with space, it is much more glamorous to go into space than it is to sink into the dark depths of the ocean. standing on the moon or mars in the sunlight looking back on earth is much more appealing than seeing a few feet from a submersible.

    Shiny objects, and attractive ideas drive much of mankind’s motivations.

    • catman306 says:

      That’s primarily because shiny things, space craft, tropical storms and tornadoes make great television, but climate disruption, being more gradual, does not. Only some natural events lend themselves to interesting television. The rest go unreported and ignored. If something is not on television, many people think it can’t be real or is unimportant.

      Human psychology seems to have changed in the past 60 years. Some of that change has been caused by TV consciousness.

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        It’s actually TV unconsciousness, TV has neurophysiological effects slowing cortical activity, ME

  3. BobbyL says:

    Sending people into space is extremely expensive whereas it is much cheaper to send robots. Somehow politicians need to keep alive this dream of sending people to Mars and beyond. If we would limit ourselves to sending robots we would learn a great amount at a fraction of the cost. Since we have been sending rockets into space we have learned an amazing amount about the planets, stars, galaxies, etc which has been one of the great human accomplishments in history. Perhaps the most exciting thing now is that we are beginning to identify planets that are somewhat similar to earth. The search to find out if there is other intelligent life out there continues to be of great interest. Let’s keep going but let’s stop trying to send people out there on extremely dangerous missions with no real need to be carried out.

  4. M Tucker says:

    “When it comes to the ocean, we have “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Sponge Bob Square Pants,” and Cameron’s somewhat lesser-known film “The Abyss.” And that’s about it.”

    Ah, actually not quite.

    What about the movie and TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?” What about the enormously popular and extremely long running “Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” series? What about “Sea Hunt?” Lloyd Bridges for Christ’s sake!

    We have millions who scuba dive. How many diving magazines exist? We have another installment of the persistent summer series “Shark Week” to look forward to. Again. People love exploring the ocean and they love to imagine all sorts of stupid things exist in the ocean like mermaids…seen Discovery Channel lately?

    Just as with space exploration don’t expect Congress to spend more. Expect more private investment in both space and ocean exploration. Just like Jacques was doing before the camera found him. When you can put a “Curiosity” like rover at 20,000 feet and have it, somehow, send photos to a lab in the US then we might see some progress in ocean exploration.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Cameron deserves a lot of credit for spending so much of his own money on undersea exploration, motivated entirely by scientific curiosity.

    Phytoplankton, the basis of the ocean food chain, has declined 40% in the last 50 years, a result of GHG emission caused acidification. We need to spend more on studying the ocean just to flesh out this chilling statistic, what it could mean for ocean ecosystems, and what we need to do about it.

  6. M Tucker says:

    It shouldn’t be either / or. It should not be a contest between space exploration and ocean exploration. Congress will not fund human exploration of Mars and they want to cut back on ocean exploring surface ships. Don’t look to Congress for exploration dollars for either human exploration of space or the deep ocean.

    Why does pop culture have much more space themed programs and movies? Aliens! Especially ones that look like humans. If Kirk couldn’t have gotten a kiss from a sexy space alien where would Star Trek have been?

    Since you included all the space movies that had to do with space, even space wars, you need to consider all the movies about submarines. All the WWII movies. “Ice Station Zebra” too. All of them. But when it comes to ocean exploration TV shows, even a science fiction show like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” don’t expect them to find mermaids or an underwater city or have the propagandist kiss a fish lady. We have had a few mermaid movies though and Daryl Hanna made a good mermaid!

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    We could learn so much about so many new species.

    And then send them extinct.

  8. David Lewis says:

    If you’re going to advocate for beefing up the ocean science budget on a climate site, you might want to familiarize yourself with how significant the global ocean is to climate science.

    Had “we” spent a fraction of the space budget on understanding the ocean, we’d now know a lot more about how GHG emissions were going to affect us and future generations.

    When a climate scientist talks about “natural variability”, a lot of the time what this means is we don’t know enough about what is happening to the 90% of the incoming heat that is accumulating in the planetary system in the global ocean to say anything more meaningful.

    When we’re told an El Nino caused a record global average surface temperature, what it means is ocean currents caused a bit of the heat that is in the ocean to spread out over the surface of the ocean as opposed to locating itself in a thicker pool – which heats the atmosphere immediately above it.

    Changes to ocean currents are thought to have caused significant changes in climate in the past. Heat goes in and comes out, as does CO2 and other gases. The amount of CO2 in the ocean dwarfs what is in the atmosphere.

    It speaks volumes about how ignorant we are that your piece says nothing about the benefits a greater understanding of the oceans could give to climate science.