Making the Case

Going through some old papers, I found a school publication which contained an essay I wrote in 1971.  If memory serves, I had just read Gerard K. O’Neill’s “The Case for Space”, and of course, the Apollo lunar expeditions were in full swing.  I would like to hear your thoughts on how these arguments have held up for the last four decades.  Are they true, has time shown them to be specious, or have they been overcome by events?  Your comments please on this tidbit of history.
Today’s Quest

A group of people stand, watching, on a beach.  A spark of light appears in the distance.  A pillar of angry red and orange smoke climbs in the sky.  A blast wave strikes the people, they are deafened by a roar.  The very ground begins to tremble, and a white spire takes off — takes off for the Moon!  Three men are going to the Moon!

But what are they leaving behind — here on the ‘good earth?”  Hunger, poverty, war.  In light of these pressing social needs why should we spend billions of dollars to send men to the moon?

Let’s take a look at each of these concerns:

WAR.  Wars have been fought for two reasons usually; for power and for territory.  Space encompasses both unlimited power and infinite territory.  Some people believe that we may substitute the conflict between man and man for the conflict between man and nature.  Many people, among them the imminent rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun, believe that space exploration could become a possible alternative to war.

POVERTY.  First let me point out that of the billions of dollars spent thus far to explore space, not one dollar bill ended up on the Moon.  Every last penny was spent here on Earth.  There have been two traditional ways to cure poverty; give a man a handout or give a man a job.  The American way has always been to give a man a job; after all that is what our forefathers came to this country for; a job, an opportunity to better himself.  NASA at it height employed 400,000 men. 

HUNGER.  How can space exploration cure hunger?  Rockets can’t make food and as we all know there is hunger in America today.  Not starvation — a recent government report showed that while there was hunger no one starved to death in America.  In other countries this is not so.  Tomorrow there may be starvation in America as our population increases.  How are we to meet this need?  Space exploration has already given us food.  Two specific examples:  there are two bays in Florida.  One produces tons of shrimp every year.  The other, just like it and immediately next to it produced no shrimp.  The people there spent hundreds of dollars to find out why.  They tested the salinity of the water, the currents, and even seeded it with baby shrimp, but to no avail, the bay remained unproductive.  One picture from one Gemini flight showed the reason.  It seems that the current in one of the bays was circular and kept the shrimp in it.  In the other bay, however, the current swept the shrimp out to sea.  A fifteen foot breakwater was built, and now that bay too produces tons of shrimp every year.  Another example. Apollo 9, the last Apollo flight to remain in Earth orbit, in addition to testing out lunar hardware, did several experiments in relation to the Earth.  For example, it took pictures of the wheat belt of Kansas.  Wheat, as we all know makes bread which is the staff of life.  Wheat, however, is attacked by a disease called wheat rust.  The wheat plant, to fight off the infection, uses up more energy.  Some of this energy is given off in the form of heat.  On infrared film the Apollo 9 crew spotted the infected area.  Quick action by the Agriculture Department in cordoning off the diseased area made the wheat crop for 1969 (the year the Apollo 9 flew) the largest in our history.

But these are only small aids.  One must remember that the previous flights were only pioneering flights.  Toward the end of this decade with Skylab and other Space Stations in orbit, we will have constant surveillance where today we have only random pictures.

These are three of our major problems, but space exploration has given us other things.

Space exploration has given us advances in technology.  As the trite phrase has it, there is not enough room to list all the spinoffs from space technology so only one example will have to do.  The medical men wanted to know how a man’s body would react to spaceflight.  What is the astronauts’ heartbeat and blood pressure as they roar through space?  To meet this need sensors were developed.  These sensors have been adapted to hospitals where they have already saved thousands of lives.  It is estimated that 100,000 lives could be saved if these intensive care wards were put into general use all around the nation.

Space  exploration has also brought gains in world prestige.  World prestige is a fickle but potent thing.  When the Russians put the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, they gained much power from the acclaim.  Indeed, as a direct result of this prestige, the Russians went into East Berlin exactly three days after the flight and began building a wall.

Think what the world would feel about America if we had stayed home, the Russians had gone to the moon, and our only contribution to world affairs had been the war in Viet Nam.  We would then be reviled in the eyes of all men!

The American people also have gained much self confidence from our space flights.  We have many problems facing us, racial prejudice, war, famine, disease — all seemingly insoluble problems.  But remember, we are the nation that sent three men to the moon, and three men again, and three men again; we can do anything we put our minds to and this is the type of confidence that the American People need to solve these problems.

One final area.  Knowledge.  We all agree that space flights have brought us knowledge, but knowledge is an abstract thing.  What really is knowledge?  It is what makes us different from the cave men, indeed what makes the cave men different from the other animals of the forests is the knowledge to get in out of the rain.  Yes, space flight has brought us knowledge; and in the words of John Glenn as he spoke before Congress after his historic flight:  “Exploration and the pursuit of knowledge have always paid dividends in the long run — usually far greater than anything expected at the outset.”


So I offer this quaint historical essay, written with all the enthusiasm of youth, set in the language and culture of an earlier day — and I ask for your comments:  what has stood the test of time?  How has the rationale for space travel evolved over the years?  What has proven to be accurate and what was not?  I await your thoughts. 

14 thoughts on “Making the Case”

  1. What a great read.

    Pity it omitted Earthrise, the photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission.
    I agree with wilderness photographer Galen Rowell who called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.

    Having said this I did find the article a little sad because the enthusiastic wording reminded me of a time when the focus was on getting the job done and there was certainty that the world getting better.

    Now it seems science is seen as the cause of our problems rather than the saviour, lawyers and process are more important than the outcome, there is no agreement on what kind of society we want, etc…

  2. In relation to poverty and hunger, the rationale for space exploration that you used is still quite strong.

    In relation to war, it seems that there has not been the political will to replace the conquest of nations or people with the conquest of space. There is also a relationship between a nations space-faring capabilities and their capability to deploy dangerous weapons at long range. I feel that fear in this regard has led to a hampering of international cooperation on space engineering (for example the US’ ITAR regulations).

    Note that I have used the term space exploration, not your term space travel. To me, space travel implies manned space exploration and I honestly have trouble rationalising it in light of the capabilities of the current and next generation of robotic explorers. Other than the experiments that related to the human experience in space, how many of the science outcomes of the Apollo program could have been achieved with robotic missions? Wouldn’t the sensors to which you refer have been developed anyway (and probably at lower cost because the would not need to be flight rated)? Electrocardiography was well established before Apollo and I don’t believe its evolution would have been significantly hampered had Apollo not driven it.

    In my opinion, human spaceflight is often over-rationalised. How, for example, is the multi-billion dollar Large Hadron Collider rationalised? You don’t see people running around justifying the LHC because it will solve war, poverty or hunger. The search for knowledge is its goal, and so it should be for human spaceflight. Proponents of human spaceflight would be much better served being honest about that, rather than trying to justify it as a solution to the world’s problems. When it doesn’t solve those problems, disappointment inevitably follows – along with a rapidly disappearing budget. Pursuit of knowledge is a goal in itself – John Glenn had it right.

    Thanks for sharing your essay. BTW, I hope this typo wasn’t in the original: “*imminent* rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun”.

  3. It has stood the test of time. The truth of the message has not changed, however the message is no generally longer heard. This does not make it any less true!

    When people say “Why spend on space when we have problems on Earth?”, one need only look at the relative amounts spent on other things and the return gained.

    What is the return on investment per dollar invested in space projects? Furthermore some of the intangibles mentioned in the above essay cannot be quantified into return on investment.

    I’m simply echoing your points, however if anything has changed, the case for space is more relevant that ever before.

  4. Thanks for sharing this with us. I don’t think _I_ will ever be posting on the internet any of the stuff I wrote when I was that age! So: be glad you have stuff that isn’t embarrassing.

    I’ve been meaning to write something asking some of you guys who are in the business, what us non-expert, outsider space fans can do to “make the case” in any meaningful way. I’m not ready yet, but for my money, all the corny idealism in your essay still holds up, and still applies as much as ever. Much of the world still doesn’t seem to get it — but that doesn’t make it not true.

    One word not in your essay, but I think it’s implied: Hope.
    My wife is a social studies teacher, and every year she shows one of her classes the Apollo 8 episode of _From the Earth to the Moon_: “1968.” I know I’m a silly romantic space geek, but I get teary just thinking about the last line, quoting Mrs. Pringle (don’t want to spoil it for anybody). We’re making it a tradition in our family to watch that one on Christmas Eve.

    There are still more reasons to get out into space, but “Younger-Wayne’s” are still fine ones.

  5. Unfortunately, people don’t see the benefits. People see government waste in a time of need instead of the jobs kept going. People see aging technology that has lost its luster instead of the stellar awesomeness of space travel. People see fighting, back-stabbing, petty political diahrrea instead of a high-achieving space program. People see just another government “mess.” People see astronauts in diapers driving cross country amidst nasty love triangles instead of the “heros” with the stuff of legend we used to call astronauts. Space Shuttle missions are a routine, normal part of life, like cheeseburgers.

    Sadly, I think that the major points of the essay are spot on, its just that people don’t see them anymore. Sadly, it is human nature to pay attention to the new, the sparkling, the dazzling…. we need a new “hero” to bring us back to space….

  6. As large as the “prestige” argument loomed in JFK’s decision and throughout the 1960s, it doesn’t really hold up in retrospect. Did any ally, opponent, or wavering third-world nation change any specific policy or behavior after 1969 because of Apollo’s success? Wasn’t there abundant evidence in other areas that the US had a strong technology base and abundant wealth?

    After the jolt of Sputnik, it made *us* feel better about ourselves — your “confidence” point, and not a trivial consideration. But there are too many other ingredients in the mix of “how people think about other nations” for primacy in space to matter very much, except to space fans.

  7. The USA went to the Moon because it was a Cold War race against the Russians – end of story. Apollo had nothing to do with Science or any thing else. The race back to the Moon is now against China – sorry politicians just don’t think like Engineers or Scientists. Most major human achievements (eg. nation building) are based on political motivation. The “other” reasons just make up the numbers and make people feel good about it. As for going back to the Moon I just want us off this planet and living somewhere else, see footprints in the lunar dust again, and able to watch HD video from another world – and if its only because of political motivation then so be it.

  8. At any point in time there are as many people as the planet can sustain with a certain amount of pain, with the current technology. It was probably just as hard to find affordable housing & food in 1920 as it is now, even with a tiny fraction of the people. So the question isn’t how much less painful the colonization of space would make life, but how many more people could be born without increasing the pain.

  9. This is an excellent essay that portrays how we should feel about the objective of exploring space; however, fast-forwarding from when it was originally written to modern times, I disagree with one point (if you look at this essay as being written today). You stated “There have been two traditional ways to cure poverty; give a man a handout or give a man a job.” I am not usually a pessimist, but I feel that this great nation is shifting to the “give me a handout” mentality. I am not sure exactly why, but it could have something to do with instant information and breakdown of the family structure as compared to the late 60s early 70s. I am always hopeful that the United States will join together to achieve great things once again. The only question is: What will it take to get us to do this?

  10. “There have been two traditional ways to cure poverty; give a man a handout or give a man a job. The American way has always been to give a man a job; after all that is what our forefathers came to this country for; a job, an opportunity to better himself. NASA at it height employed 400,000 men.”

    I actually don’t think this has stood the test of time, and rightly so. Give a man anything and he will resent you for it, be it a job or a handout. If you GIVE him a job he will seek to preserve it with as little effort as possible as opposed to serving the customer his job was created for. The sentiment should not be to “give a man a job”, but “create opportunities so a man can earn a job”. NASA and NASA’s contractors should NOT be the primary source of space related jobs.

    The idea that space is a worthwhile endeavor because it employs large numbers of government workers doesn’t really hold water. And what we have ended up with is a bureaucracy and politics that seek to preserve the institution, not its original goals.

    I consider myself a hardcore O’Neillian but I think in this case Gerard didn’t recognize the downsides of an institutionalized work force. Once they reach sufficient size, all organizations seek their own preservation as their #1 priority.

  11. Interesting. As you say, this shows its age but not in the expected way. Indeed, this refers to the 50s/60s/70s way of considering policy debate as a kind of major “acropolis” where citizens could debate rationally about the best course of action of their nation/community as a whole. But now, despite having way many more ways of interacting, we seem to have moved in a much more fractured society, maybe less naive, where we understand that there are other forces at play. Ergo the space advocates championing “private enterprise” or the presence of space tourists on the ISS which you no doubt (nor anyone else) would have even thought possible back then!


  12. I believe all of these points are still true, and we have (or should have) more motivation than ever to get out there and explore.

    As many have mentioned already, the benefits of space have been numerous and well beyond what the general public realizes. The NASA website has an area that shows some of these many benefits: . It’s too bad we can’t find a way to get this information out to more people….

    The current economic situation is bad, and although many may consider space exploration non-essential, I think there are more reasons than ever for us to continue to explore:

    1.) It would seem that space exploration is somewhat of a national security need at this point as well as a scientific endeavor given the fact that China is building a “military” space station, and that Korea is now in the business of launching “satellites”. I think this will be a huge concern when we have the gap between the Shuttle and Orion programs.

    2.) We need to better understand our planet and our environment – satellite imagery from space has provided us with mounds of information on the environment, tropical storms, etc… that we use on a daily basis. We also need to better understand the planets and the universe to understand the natural effects of these on our planet versus what is manmade.

    3.) Now that we have even more photographic evidence that water may exist on Mars, we have a compelling reason to continue to explore that planet and continue to learn more about it and other neighboring planets to see what resources and lifeforms may exist!

    4.) Living in space gives us excellent motivation to learn how to live with limited resources and energy. Many space vehicles already use solar power, and on the International Space Station and Space shuttle, recycling is key to reducing waste – lessons that we can definitely apply here on earth as well!

    5.) The U.S. has been a leader in Space Exploration for many decades, and we need to hold on to that prestige if we want to remain a world leader. To give up on space exploration as a country would be like Tiger Woods giving up golf – it would just be a shame.

    6.) Although Space Exploration is not cheap, if you look at it relative to some other things that the country spends money on, it is actually quite a bargain – especially if we could figure out a way to accurately calculate the returns we have received from all of the spin-off technologies. NASA’s annual budget (which is 18.7 billion for 2010) is less than a 10th of what the government has spent to bailout the banks since October 2008 (

    I do think that most of the reasons I mentioned above could be accomplished with robotics missions, but I also think that the average American generally connects better with having a human in the loop. I think it is in our nature to want to explore and having people involved allows to experience space in a different way. Hopefully, we can find a way to continue funding both manned and un-manned exploration because I think they both have great benefits. Once we find a way to make money in space, I’m sure there will be no limit to the public’s interest! If only NASA were given royalties for all of those spinoff technologies and space pictures!

    Just my 2 cents…

  13. I believe that all of Wayne’s arguments are still valid today, BUT there are now additional factors that were not in the forefront of people’s thoughts back in 1971. The movements (some might say bandwagons) for addressing globalization, environmentalism, climate change, energy production & distribution, and sustainability are domains that now compete with the space program for public and national attention outside of the enduring realms of entertainment, politics, economics, and sports. Furthermore, these movements are vocal, organized, and well funded. The result is that “making the case for space” is now more difficult than ever. Nevertheless, we must continue to try. However, independent arguments revolving around war, poverty, hunger, spinoffs, prestige, pursuit of knowledge, or inspiring today’s youth just won’t resonate with the public. It’s all been said before. It’s not NOW. The biggest payback will be if we can somehow enlist the aid of these new movements in a mutually cooperative fashion. Then we could leverage their resources to further our goals. Otherwise, I am afraid that space will occupy only a diminishing niche in society’s collective sense of relative importance (implication: no money), and dreams of humans conquering the space frontier may be long in coming.

  14. I believe God created the universe, and he wants us to go explore it so we will gain understanding and give Him the glory. Exploration of new frontiers has historically been funded by governments. Ergo, space exploration is a legitimate civil government expenditure.

    People say that the money we spend of space should be used to eliminate hunger or poverty. That is a flawed idea. The civil government exists for a limited set of functions. Eliminating poverty and hunger are outside that limited set. We proponents of space will lose the argument every time if we try to show how space travel/exploration helps deal with poverty or hunger. We would do better to argue that the civil government has no business trying to solve those problems.

    As for war (which is a legitimate government expenditure), space travel/exploration will never replace war. Larger powers may well come to see space as a more effective way to achieve their political goals, but Somali pirates and Afghani warlords are not going to stop killing people and start launching rockets. AK-47’s are cheaper and easier to acquire than spacecraft. The world will always have powerful people who prefer fear and destruction to productive achievement, and the innocent will always need people to protect them (by force, if necessary) from such people.

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