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Over the past few months, I’ve written a half-dozen columns examining the ethics and rationale behind a variety of space initiatives. But there’s one central question that I have yet to tackle: Why should we care about space exploration in the first place?
Some space enthusiasts choose to ignore this question altogether. If you ask them why you ought to care about space, they might look at you like you’re crazy — “Well, why wouldn’t you? Are you, like, against science or something?” But when billions of taxpayer dollars are going into space-related research every year, and the benefit to the public is not always evident, the “why” question needs to be addressed.
Unfortunately, the common arguments in favor of space exploration have glaring holes in their logic.
Take a hypothetical space enthusiast. He might begin his defense of space spending by citing all the useful technologies that have been created as a result of space exploration. This point is indisputable — the list of technologies that NASA has produced or refined is extensive, ranging from portable laptops to baby formula. But if our primary desire is the production of useful consumer technologies, a space agency doesn’t seem like the most intuitive place to invest. Plenty of other industries could produce similar technologies if given NASA’s multi-billion dollar budget, and they likely could do so more efficiently, given that the development of these technologies is only one small part of NASA’s overall mission.
The space geek might then point out that going after NASA for financial reasons is misguided. After all, NASA’s funding only makes up 0.5 percent of the total U.S. budget; if you really wanted to save money, you’d best look elsewhere. But this is where we wade into politically divisive waters — what exactly can we scale back instead of NASA? If you said (as I’m inclined to) that the military is the most deserving of a budget cut, you’d immediately lose the attention of many conservative listeners. A call to slash social spending would be dismissed by the progressive bloc. It would be nigh-impossible to find any element of the U.S. budget that could be slashed with bipartisan support — that is, perhaps, besides NASA itself.
At this point, the space fanatic might pull out one last desperate card: Space research is necessary in order to protect the human race. If we never branch out to other planets, then we’re all sitting ducks waiting to be wiped out by the next extinction event. And, indeed, this might be true in the long term. But in the short term, we don’t have the capability to transport humans to another planet en masse, and making a distant planet fully habitable is certainly out of reach. So, for now, it’s more important to keep Earth safe than to start colonizing another planet; fighting existential threats like climate change is actually feasible, and climate research could certainly benefit from an annual budget of $22.6 billion.
So, it seems, our space enthusiast has failed to provide a convincing defense of space spending.
Now for the dramatic twist — that hypothetical space advocate was actually me, about two days ago, when I sat down to write this final column. At first, I wanted to write a traditional defense of space spending, but I quickly realized that every argument I constructed or encountered online had major holes in its logic. As a result, I was forced to ask myself: Does my deeply-held passion for space exploration actually have no logical basis?
And, I realized, the answer is yes. The very act of exploring space — launching humans on giant hunks of metal to go wander around distant space rocks — is a deeply illogical undertaking. Still, millions of humans across the globe are inspired by daring space missions, even if those missions offer no tangible benefit to their own lives.
To me, this is because space research — from the search for extraterrestrial life to figuring out how to get humans to Mars — is more of a spiritual pursuit than a pragmatic one. It excites and fascinates us; it satisfies our collective desire to learn more about the unknown — to go where we’ve never been before. Space allows us to explore our deepest questions about the nature of our role in the universe.
Asking why we should fund space exploration is like asking why we should fund art. Arguments rooted in pragmatism miss the point — that space exploration is for the heart and soul.
That said, not everyone will get the same fulfillment from space, like not everyone finds value in the same work of art. So, it’s important that we space advocates be flexible in order to keep our dream alive.
When pragmatists point out that the money currently going towards space seems excessive, we should say, “You know, you might be right,” and look for alternatives — like an emphasis on less-expensive unmanned space exploration or partnerships between NASA and private companies. When they tell us that some space initiatives — like terraforming — are unrealistic, we should abandon those goals. And when they ask what tangible benefits can be reaped from outer space, we should point out the potential opportunities to turn a profit — like asteroid mining.
These are all ideas that I’ve explored in this column. I’m obviously one of the people who finds great spiritual fulfillment through our exploration of space, but I completely understand that not everyone feels the same way. I urge my fellow space enthusiasts to recognize that our passion is not shared by everyone; in response, we should always be looking for cheaper and more efficient ways to carry out the big goals that we would love to see accomplished.
If we want to take the next giant leaps, we mustn’t step on too many toes.
Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.
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