The Real Reasons We Explore Space
Ambition, curiosity, and a reason the NASA Administrator admits has nothing to do with economic benefit.
- By Michael Griffin
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
(Page 2 of 3)
Cathedral builders would understand what I mean by real reasons. The monuments they erected to the awe and mystery of their God required a far greater percentage of their gross domestic product than we will ever put into the space business, but we look back across 600 or 800 years of time, and we are still awed by what the builders accomplished. Those buildings, therefore, also stand as monuments to the builders.
The return the cathedral builders made on their investment could not have been summarized in a cost/benefit analysis. They began to develop civil engineering, the core discipline for any society if it wishes to have anything more than thatched huts. They gained societal advantages that were probably even more important than learning how to build walls and roofs. For example, they learned to embrace deferred gratification, not just on an individual level, where it is a crucial element of maturity, but on a societal level, where it is equally vital. The people who started the cathedrals didn’t live to finish them. The society as a whole had to be dedicated to the completion of those projects. We owe Western civilization as we know it today to that kind of thinking: the ability to have a constancy of purpose across years and decades.
It is my contention that the products of our space program are today’s cathedrals. The space program satisfies the desire to compete, but in a safe and productive manner, rather than in a harmful one. It speaks abundantly to our sense of human curiosity, of wonder and awe at the unknown. Who can watch people assembling the greatest engineering project in the history of mankind—the International Space Station—and not wonder at the ability of people to conceive and to execute the project? And it also addresses our need for leaving something for future generations.
Of course the space program also addresses the acceptable reasons, and in the end this is imperative. Societies will not succeed in the long run if they place their resources and their efforts in enterprises that, for whatever reason, don’t provide concrete value. But I believe that projects done for the real reasons that motivate humans also serve the acceptable reasons. In that sense, the value of space exploration really is in its spinoffs, as many have argued. But it’s not in spinoffs like Teflon and Tang and Velcro, as the public is so often told—and which in fact did not come from the space program. And it’s not in spinoffs in the form of better heart monitors or cheaper prices for liquid oxygen for hospitals, although the space program’s huge demand for liquid oxygen spurred fundamental improvements in the production and handling of this volatile substance. The real spinoffs are, just as they were for cathedral builders, more fundamental.
Anyone who wants to build spacecraft, who wants to be a subcontractor, or who even wants to supply bolts and screws to the space industry must work to a higher level of precision than human beings had to do before the space industry came along. And that standard has influenced our entire industrial base, and therefore our economy.
As for national security, what is the value to the United States of being involved in enterprises which lift up human hearts everywhere? What is the value to the United States of being a leader in such efforts, in projects in which every technologically capable nation wants to take part? The greatest strategy for national security, more effective than having better guns and bombs than everyone else, is being a nation that does the kinds of things that make others want to do them with us.
What do you have to do, how do you have to behave, to do space projects? You have to value hard work. You have to live by excellence, or die from the lack of it. You have to understand and practice both leadership and followership. You have to build partnerships; leaders need partners and allies, as well as followers.
You have to accept the challenge of the unknown, knowing that you might fail, and to do so not without fear but with mastery of fear and a determination to go anyway. You have to defer gratification because we work on things that not all of us will live to see—and we know it.