On the 20th of this month, humanity will reach the fiftieth anniversary of the first time that we put ourselves on another world. We are also tragically three and a half years away from the fiftieth anniversary of the last time that we did that. I call this failure tragic because we have done it to ourselves, thanks to our own weaknesses, primarily greed and a lack of imagination.
This is not to disparage what lies behind a standard argument against the space program. The objection is generally formulated along the lines of asking why we should spend money on sending people — or even probes, if we push the case to its conclusion — out there when there are plenty of problems that need solving down here. This is not entirely well grounded, since universal healthcare, for example, would cost much less than the current American system, and attending to how much tax cuts and military adventurism cost seems to me to be a better place to start if we are looking for funding for programs that benefit the people.
But there is an implicit assumption being made here that I wish to challenge. Asking why we should spend money on space implies that the questioner does not see exploration and colonization of space as important.
Consider one potential alternative to space spending: education. The United States ranks near the top of the list of developed nations for our percentage of gross domestic product devoted to education. The fact that our performance does not equal our spending with regard to primary and secondary students suggests that we could do better by reconsidering how the money is used at least as much as we demand more funding — which is not to say that no increases — teacher pay, especially — are warranted. Our higher education students are beaten only by those in the United Kingdom, but here again, how we spend the money deserves more thought than how much it is, given the crisis of student loans.
By contrast, NASA’s budget for 2020 is $21 billion. Federal spending on education — itself only a part, the state contributions being the bulk of the total — is about three times NASA’s. And the military at present gets three-quarters of a trillion dollars.
It is a cliché in this argument to point out that the computers on which I write these articles and readers here see them are the result of the space program, Apollo in particular, but that is only one of many things that launching people and machines into space has brought us. Weather forecasting and resource management become more accurate and effective when we can look down from orbit. We locate ourselves today without having to unfold a paper map. And international relations are more stable when we can see what everyone is doing without having to invade the other nation’s airspace. And if we were to spend a lot more money on schools, we would need jobs for our graduates to do once they enter the workforce. I, for one, would like to see STEM students building space elevators and lunar colonies instead of more sophisticated bombs. And if our species is ever called to account, I would like to be able to say that we included a Europa submarine somewhere in between dating apps and music streaming services.
I have addressed practical matters first so as to dispose of them before moving on to the real purpose of a space program, a purpose that politicians will occasionally rhapsodize upon while not really meaning it. This purpose takes science fiction writers (if I may blow a professional horn) and filmmakers, daydreaming children, and generally the imaginative members of our species to explicate and advocate. I have here in mind the same impulse that drives us to climb mountains, cross oceans, and peer into caves. In the same line of thinking as illustrated by George Mallory’s often quoted explanation of why he wanted to put a footprint on top of Mt. Everest, when I see photographs of some distant object out there, I cannot help noting that it is there and we are not.
Human beings are explorers. From the Epic of Gilgamesh and I would guess millennia before to Star Trek, we have been telling ourselves stories about going out over the horizon to find adventures. The philosophically inclined will object that I am confusing is and ought, though I am not making a moral claim here. We can debate what we should do once we get there — how we ought to use the resources, what our relationships ought to be if we ever meet life not our own. But the human experience, the experiences that existed even before we became modern humans, is one of going over the horizon to become what a new place makes us be. As an American, I have grown up with the mythology of the frontier, and I cannot deny that this colors my thinking. The potential for new diversities in human culture, however, and the growth in human knowledge that human exploration of and expansion into space offers brings me to an ought: We ought to be there. Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt should not be the closure of what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin started.