Why Explore Space?

Are these two conversations, historic and current, so very different?



Walden, 1854, by Henry David Thoreau :  “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not . . “


Modern conversation overheard:  “Why would we want to throw money away on space exploration, it is just a waste!”  “Don’t we have problems enough here on earth?  We should solve (fill in the blank) before we explore space.”



The more things change, the more they stay the same. 


I wonder if the USA exports ice these days?  In 1869, the transcontinental railroad revolutionized travel and knit the United States together.  Thoreau was a great philosopher and I encourage you to read his works, but he had an aversion to technology that would have served us poorly a century and a half ago.  His philosophical heirs in this aversion to technology would likewise have us follow a path which will serve our nation – and our world – poorly for the next century and more.


Some people believe, in spite of fifty years of evidence to the contrary, that the technicians down at the Kennedy Space Center load stacks of fresh dollar bills (or maybe hundred dollar bills) into each space vehicle which is then launched into the great abyss as though money were toxic waste needing disposal.  Thoreau would have agreed that money is toxic, so maybe there is a connection. 


For at least two generations a number of thoughtful writers, scholars, professionals have helped us understand that space exploration, rather than being a distraction from “serious things”,  actually provides solutions to some of the most intractable problems here on earth.  By and large most people recognize the value that NASA brings.  But the nay-sayers are persistent, and the general public wakes up fresh every day, so we will try one more time to explain why space exploration is important for today and vital to our future.


Many reasons have been advanced to demonstrate why the United States of America should continue to lead the exploration of space.  At this particular point in time, let’s concentrate on four of these.  Limiting the discussion will keep it to a manageable size, just note that there are many more points which can be made,  which may be more applicable at other times or in different circumstances. 

Here are my top four:


1.  Space Exploration inspires our young people to achievements in education, especially in science, engineering, mathematics, and technical subjects.


2.  Space Exploration requires innovation and technological advancement which improves the national economy directly and for the long term.


3.  Space Exploration leads to better understanding of our world, its environment and climate, and allows for global monitoring of changes.


4.  American leadership in Space Exploration provides for greater national security in multiple ways that are at once subtle, tangible, and highly effective.


These, it seems to me, comprise a powerful subset of arguments in favor of expending at least a small fraction of our national treasure on this enterprise.


And it is a small fraction; the entire NASA budget makes up 6 tenths of one percent of the Federal budget.  Given the attention paid to NASA, it is easy to understand why some uninformed citizens believe that NASA’s budget approaches that of the  Department of Defense, or that of spending for Social Security.  In truth, if all of NASA’s budget were to disappear, there would be no appreciable savings to the national debt, no meaningful improvement in our national social safety net, and probably a net loss to the national defense.  Those who defend the space exploration budget are constantly finding new categories of spending which exceeds the NASA allocation:  Americans spend more on pet food than they do on space exploration; Americans spend more on cosmetics than on space; Gillette Razor company spent more to develop and market their new shaver than it costs to fly the space shuttle for a year, and on and on.  Nobody is advocating giving up our pets, or our personal beauty, but when we talk of programs which will have lasting impacts into the future, it is well to put the cost in context.  Don’t even get started on bailouts.  AIG, to take one easy example, has received more tax dollars in the last few months than NASA has in its budget for a decade.  America is the world’s only remaining superpower, both economically and militarily.  As a nation we have the resources to educate our children, care for our elderly, defend ourselves, and all the rest; and somewhere in all that it might just be important to devote six tenths of one percent to the future. 



Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to explore each of these reasons in some detail.  Please stay tuned.





Inspiring our Children

Being at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival on opening day was a hoot.  I got to talk to a whole bunch of folks.  In terms of mass media it was probably not that many, but this was two way conversation and I certainly talked to as many as I could in the 5 or so hours the festival went on. 

The most fun is talking to the school children.  Many families are here for vacations and some of these kids seem to be suffering from museum-itis.  Too much to see, too many things to do.  But almost all of them had questions about living and working in space.  I think you can guess the most popular question . . .

My question back to many of them is “Do you want to go to space?”  Some of the shy little ones wouldn’t answer, a few of the more cautious ones said no, but the vast majority got wide eyed and nodded with enthusiasm.  If they said they wanted to go, I passed them a NASA bookmark and told them to read . . . because that is the key.  The parents invariably said ‘My child loves to read’.  or something like that.

Wow, what a response.  Of course, what we really need to do is to reach those kiddos who don’t like to read, or whose parents don’t drag them off to educational trips.  Talking with the education folks at NASA HQ and other centers, the space agency does a tremendous job on a shoe string budget at all levels of the educational world to provide educational opportunities, lessons, teacher resources, and unique experiences for students from pre-school to graduate school.  Over 60,000 students each year get to directly interact with NASA educational opportunities. 

Educating our children starts with capturing their interest and getting them excited.  We have a good track record of inspiring young people to study harder and get the education they need to be productive in science and engineering fields.  That inspiration is worth its weight in gold!

Gotta go — more fun on the mall this afternoon.  If you can get to the Folk Life Festival in Washington in the next two weeks, be sure to stop by the NASA exhibit.