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40 Years Since Man Last Walked on the Moon

9:02 AM, Dec 18, 2012 • By ARI SCHULMAN
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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.

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