Why Space Exploration Matters - And It's Not (Only) About the Technology
Source: Blue Origin/Reuters
Leaving aside the debates of what defines “space” and “astronaut,” there can be no denying that we are living in a golden age of (very) high-altitude activities. The news coming weekly in rapid fire fashion detailing the exploits of Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX (among others) has made what seemed impossible just a decade ago seem, at first, possible, and now, probable. Trips back to the moon, paying passengers in spacecraft, reusable hardware – all of it makes me feel like I’m living in one of those science fiction movies I loved as a kid.
Along with the excitement though, criticism comes. For decades there has been a substantial portion of the population that laments the use of precious resources – money and human capital – on “flights of fancy” off the planet when there were so many problems on the planet. At times, those resources have been very substantial; as the figure below shows, the dollars spent on Apollo dwarfed many other initiatives – competition with the "Godless Commies" my dad used to talk about had a way of opening Uncle Sam’s wallet.
While the dollar figures may not be that surprising, many would be surprised by something pointed out by space historian Roger Launius in this Atlantic article: “Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with one exception taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969.” (Sounds a bit band-wagonny to me; support is low when people thought it might end in failure but recovered when the landing happened?)
The author of that Atlantic article is, at best, mildly critical herself of the money spent to go to the moon. She seems to align herself with those who felt the budget for the endeavor could have been spent to help the poor and that the brainpower consumed by the effort could have been employed in other, more earth-bound research activities (e.g., finding a cure for cancer). It's a fine argument as far as it goes. After all, it's hard to argue that dollars spent in one place can also be spent elsewhere. But it's a slippery slope: one person thinks Apollo and other NASA initiatives were taking money from more worthy causes, another thinks defense spending did. Or benefits for government workers did. Or funding for the post office did. Or support for Amtrak did. You get the point.
The same criticisms appear in the era of the "Billionaut." This article in The Guardian contains tweets that show some of the rancor when it comes to the likes of Bezos, Branson, and Musk. One reads: "Jeff Bezos is going into space ... yesterday, on earth, I saw a man search for food in a trash can." Another: "Class warfare is Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson becoming $250 billion richer during the pandemic, paying a lower tax rate than a nurse and racing to outer space while the planet burns and millions go without healthcare, housing and food. #TaxTheRich."
In response to those critical of both private and public sector spending on space travel, supporters of space exploration note the multiplication of dollars spent. "Look at all the great jobs it creates and the private industry it spawns!" they say. And they have a point. This article makes the case as succinctly as any other I've seen. If you throw military spending on space into the mix, the invention of GPS alone - a technology free to every person on the planet - shows what a great return on investment looks like. That system has spawned a whole ecosystem of private enterprise and has made things like air travel much safer. Indeed, this is pièce de résistance of the exploration support crowd: investment in space travel yields technological advances that help all of us, rich and poor alike.
While these are certainly valid arguments, I'd posit that we often focus too much on these and not enough on something much more ethereal - in fact, maybe that's why we don't highlight it. And that's this: that space exploration provides inspiration and meaning much as a great symphony or painting might. Said another way, the execution of activities related to getting humans to space is a form of art. Seem far fetched? I'm not so sure. I was surprised to find this definition of "art" on Wikipedia: "Art is a diverse range of ... human activities involving creative imagination to express technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptional ideas." (Emphasis added). It's true that technical proficiency in this sense might be referring to the proficiency of the artist executing their craft with precision. But what of a more literal interpretation? That the manifestation of the imagination of scientist and engineers in the form of magnificent, space-faring machines created through their technical proficiency is, likewise, art?
I don't think it's a coincidence that an artist like da Vinci was also one of the early thinkers on aviation.
Maybe the idea of space travel as art form is the reason so many who witness a launch find tears involuntarily come to their eyes? I know it's happened to me and it calls to mind something Leo Tolstoy said: "Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others." Maybe we cry at a launch because at the moment of liftoff, the passion and the coordinated effort of so many people is transmitted to the rest of us through fire and thunder and speed? I don't think it's a stretch. In fact, I'd argue that space travel is the highest form of art because of the planning and coordination it takes to pull off something that elicits such emotion. Most art is the province of the individual, the lone painter or composer or sculptor. Not space travel. No other art form I'm aware of takes the choreographed efforts of thousands.
And if, in the final analysis, human space travel is art, then it's good for the soul. It helps us see what we can be and speaks to the core of who we are - the only beings we know of (for now) with brains to dream the impossible and find beauty in the effort to realize those dreams. Yes, it takes money to make those dreams come to life, but I believe the return on that investment is incalculable. That return certainly takes the form of jobs and technology, but as importantly, it yields emotional returns that inspire us and help us feel fully human, no less than the great art of humanity through the ages. I wouldn't want to live in a world without music, paintings, film, or sculpture. And I wouldn't want to live in a world without the art of human space travel.