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.





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.