Friday, April 23, 2010

In My Opinion, No. 3: Space Exploration

What value is there in exploring the vacuum of space?

Though I detest the Metro Express newspaper, I occasionally read it when I forget to bring a book with me. This week one poll asked a very similar question to the one above, eliciting this response from a reader named "Steve":

No. Sending humans into space to explore Mars or any more of the solar system or beyond is an incredible waste of time and money. We should continue only with unmanned space exploration until such time as we find some new technology to send humans very cheaply[...].
This argument is problematic for two reasons: First, "Steve" does not understand economics very well. We do not improve a technology, if not through its constant use. The technology to send a human farther than the moon will never become inexpensive except through experimentation, trial, and refinement. We do not build a better bicycle by thinking about bikes. We test what is available, make possible improvements, test the new prototype, correct for errors, ad infinitum. If there was one good thing to come out of the Cold War, it was the money poured into NASA and the technology that developed as a result. And I'm not talking about the technology that only rocket scientists use. Next time "Steve" uses his cell phone to make a long-distance call, he should think about whether this technology would even exist today had Russia not been innovative enough to launch Sputnik.

The second reason Steve's comment bothers me is because it dismisses space exploration, calling it an incredible waste. The attitude strikes me as very utilitarian. What's in it for me? he asks. Moon rocks are worthless; therefore, exploring the moon is worthless. This sentiment is uninspired, to say the least.

I contest that exploration has intrinsic worth, and its value, then, is immeasurable. While I am well aware that Columbus' expedition was at least partly fueled by commercial interests and certainly led to cross-cultural complications, I admire his guts and attitude. Sure, he could have stayed in Europe. And Latter-day Saints could have stayed in the Salt Lake Valley. And Hagoth could have stayed in Bountiful. Lehi could have stayed in the Arabian peninsula. The Israelites could have stayed in Egypt. Adam and Eve could have stayed in Eden. And we could have stayed with God in heaven and never come here. And really, that's all we would ever do without exploration, sit in the bottom of a valley and believe the sun revolves around us. The attitude to leave things be, lead a sedentary lifestyle or run in the same course we always have, is not only uninspiring, it's damning.

Earth is our home, and I hope we always feel that way, no matter where we go or what happens. But it is the tiniest of blips in the cosmos. Aren't any of us still the least bit curious? And don't we want our grandchildren to see a little more of it firsthand? Looking at postcards of France or actually traveling there: I choose the latter.

1 comment:

  1. I have ambivalent feelings about space exploration. While I do realize that there are definite benefits (many that indirectly affect me) that come from space exploration, I think the government should provide less support and the public more. There are many other problems and areas that I feel are in greater need of public funding than the space program.