In December 1972, Eugene Cernan took a long climb up a short ladder on the lunar surface and became the last human being to set foot on another world. It was forty years ago this week that Apollo 17 completed its quarter million mile journey home, marking the last time to date humans have traveled more than a few hundred miles from earth.
Imagine if we were to speak to those fabled ancestors who gazed up at the Moon for thousands of generations: what might shock them more—hearing that we actually went, or that once we did we’d barely caught our breath before losing interest? What pair of facts could better illuminate the two faces of human restlessness?
Today, the space program is in disarray. The shuttles sit in museums after their recent funereal marches across the country. No further manned missions are planned for many years. A report released last week by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that NASA lacks any clearly defined mission or central justification for its funding. And few within the agency think President Obama’s stated goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 makes strategic or scientific sense.
In light of these apparent ongoing failures, there is a growing chorus that claims to speak a cold, hard truth: like it or not, sending humans to space is an impractical, vain way to conduct science. They point to the great successes of Voyager, Hubble, and Curiosity, and argue for robots as the primary means of space exploration. Advocates have replied, without much success, that human scientists are more versatile than robots, and a robust space science program requires both.
Advocates also commonly highlight the myriad applications that have arisen from space research, from electronics to navigation technology and medical devices. But, as Carl Sagan noted, “you don’t need to go to Mars to cure cancer.” The belief that, moreover, it is greedy and hubristic to send people far into space while billions here on Earth suffer probably does much to explain the timid leadership by lawmakers that in turn underlies NASA’s aimlessness. Forgoing space travel, by this logic, will better focus us on the most crucial problems here on Earth.
How has that worked out? As Ross Douthat has noted, where once our geeks were driven to make rockets and our jocks driven to ride them, today the geeks are driven to make the next Facebook, iPhone, or XBox, and the jocks to use them to play the next first-person shooter game. These pursuits have their place, but are they the most powerful draws we can provide for entering technical careers? It’s no coincidence that as NASA has taken the same turn—moving its human explorers from outer space to virtual space—the apparent pointlessness of the manned space program has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That cold, hard truth needs to be turned on its head: like it or not, space travel inspires us in a way that no other pursuit can. Although the impact cannot be quantified, how many young minds were drawn into careers in science and engineering—probably in mostly unrelated fields—when they watched men land on the Moon? Protest that we ought to be most inspired by what is most useful—register your complaints with the departments of human psychology—but inspiration, however intangible, has a material benefit even hard-nosed utilitarians ought to acknowledge.
If the space program is to play a role in averting the much-feared decline of American science and technology, robotic exploration cannot be the sole answer. The Mars exploration program, which has sent ships at regular intervals for almost twenty years, is now facing purgatory. The underlying problem facing the manned space program—being driven by finding uses for technology programs, rather than by creating technologies to meet missions—is creeping.
The president and Congress should put an end to four decades of dithering and make the case for why bold goals in space, including a central role for human explorers, are feasible and desirable. They could embrace something like the Mars Direct plan, a manned mission with an estimated real cost well below Apollo, the International Space Station, or the shuttle program. And they could implement financial incentives and regulatory structures that would encourage private space development, just as the government once helped settle the West.
Space need not be a boondoggle, but neither are concerns over the country’s long-term vitality good reason to starve the program even further—on the contrary. The NASA rocket scientist Ernst Stuhlinger, when he received a letter in 1970 inquiring why we should spend money sending people to space when so many suffer here on Earth, wrote in response, “significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.”
Stuhlinger was speaking of the “spin-offs” directly created by space research; but his point applies to innovation and economic growth more generally—which are crucial to eradicating poverty. The struggle for prosperity should not be set in opposition to the drives of enterprise and discovery, because each feeds the other. An ambitious space program is a long-term investment in (among many other things) what we might call the inspirational capital required to fuel this innovation. It’s a bet against the well-intentioned but stifling notion that our material wants are best met through righteous privation of the spirit.
Ari Schulman is senior editor at The New Atlantis.