The Real Reasons We Explore Space

Ambition, curiosity, and a reason the NASA Administrator admits has nothing to do with economic benefit.

Scientist-Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17. (NASA)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.

We now believe that 95 percent of the universe consists of dark energy or dark matter, terms for things that we as yet know nothing about. Is it even conceivable that one day we won’t learn to harness them? As cavemen learned to harness fire, as people two centuries ago learned to harness electricity, we will learn to harness these new things. It was just a few years ago that we confirmed the existence of dark matter, and we would not have done so without the space program. What is the value of knowledge like that? I cannot begin to guess. A thousand years from now there will be human beings who don’t have to guess; they will know, and they will know we gave this to them.


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