When President Obama announced his new proposed budget for NASA the big news was that it will kill the Constellation program, the agency’s big return-to-the-Moon effort. Worse, it means NASA probably won’t be sending people anywhere else either for some time to come. NASA supporters were quick to growl. That was followed by howls from those who see space exploration as a colossal waste of money. Many feel Obama should go further and cut NASA to the bone. Unfortunately, this routine scrum between space haters and space lovers obscures a sensible view of what America and other nations should be doing and how much money should be spent to do it.
At first glance, it seems impossible to defend investing billions of dollars in a lunar lander or an upgrade for the Hubble Space Telescope when 25,000 children die in poverty everyday. Bob Marley communicated this problem poetically in his song, “So much trouble in the world” (“You see men sailing on their ego trip. Blast off on their space ships. A million miles from reality. No care for you, no care for me.”)
The question is valid. How can we spend billions up there when there are so many problems down here? We must have our priorities in order, say the critics. I agree. However, I argue that our priorities should be taking care of those 25,000 children who are slated to die every day as well as exploring space. We do not have to choose between the two. America and the rest of the world can and should do both. It is misleading to present space exploration as some sort of luxury that our species squanders money on. Space matters and does not get anywhere near the amount of investment that is justified. We should be spending much more, not less. The money currently invested in space annually is trivial in the big picture. Americans spend more on cigarettes each year than NASA spends on space, for example. NASA’s budget is less than one percent of the American government’s budget. Less than one percent!
Although it is the leader, the United States has never really embraced space exploration with sufficient sincerity and commitment. Even its greatest triumph, the Apollo Moon landings, was really more about showing up the Russians during the Cold War than science and discovery. (If only Osama bin Laden had a thriving space program that NASA was compelled to compete with. Then we would be going somewhere!)
Our exploration and expansion beyond the Earth is vital. New discoveries are necessary for our progress as a species. We have traveled and explored from our earliest existence. It is who we are. What we do in space now is a continuation of what we did when the first modern humans walked out of Africa to discover new lands. We are not sedentary animals, our minds not easily satisfied. We are curious, restless, and imaginative creatures. Maybe some of us can resist the urge to see what’s on the other side of a mountain or across a sea, but many of us cannot. Even those who do not go yearn to hear the stories of those who do. We have to know. It’s our way.
Obama is burdened with a severe economic crisis, but NASA’s budget is not where he should be looking to find spare change.
Personally, I don’t care which nation is ahead, so long as we—humankind—are doing something meaningful. I don’t even care so much about sending up humans at this time. There is plenty of exploring that can be done with probes and robots for now. There is nothing wrong with following the trails they blaze. In short, we should be spending much more and doing much more. This planet is not big enough for us, physically or mentally. We have to look and move beyond our horizons.
It is not enough to say the Earth is our home. Our home is the universe. Imagine if that small population of African men and women thousands of years ago decided to stay put. I’m sure they had local problems and resource concerns of one sort or another too. But they moved, regardless. They explored. They learned. They grew. So must we.
Guy is the author of “Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity”. His columns appear twice per month in the Cayman Observer. Contact him at [email protected]