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
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
Some people believe, in spite of fifty years of evidence to the contrary, that the technicians down at the
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
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.
Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to explore each of these reasons in some detail. Please stay tuned.