Why We Go

I was just reading an article on Gawker about NASA’s new Mars rover.  The first reader comment, right on schedule, was an image of a starving African child and the statement, “shouldn’t we spend our millions worrying about life on earth, before worrying about life on Mars?”

Arrrgh!  How I hate that naive argument.  And how I hate the manipulative and simpleminded appropriation of the images of Black children to sell simplistic ideas of global health and development.

Now, I’ve tackled this before, as in this blog post about the idiot and hypocrite Ashton Kutcher.   Beyond their obvious exploratory value, I made the point then that each and every space mission is essentially a mini-industry that employs thousands and that re-injects millions of dollars into the local economy, serving as an investment in a nation’s high level human capital.  And this is done with a completely peaceful purpose and process, unlilke similar endeavours that are undertaken by the military.

Another reader of the Gawker article linked to the following clip from the TV show The West Wing, which sells the idea from a different perspective:

But what really annoys me is the unconcious hypocrisy of the people who insist that we should turf our scientific exploration budgets in favour of humanitarian aid.  Science expenditures are actually miniscule, but end up having enormous impacts down the road on everything from local and international economies to the development of new technologies that allow the actual humanitarian aid that we seek.  Few people realize that almost all of the techniques and materials utilized in the provision of primary health care by humanitarian aidworkers traveling to the most benighted parts of the world were developed in large part as a result of the space programme.

As Sam says in the clip above, “No one is hungrier, colder or dumber because we went to the Moon” (or something like that).  More to the point, I think it is demonstrable that many people are warmer, healthier and smarter exactly because we went to the Moon.

But the hypocrisy that eats at me is the inability for people to see the much larger expenditures wasted on frivolous items that have much fewer positive impacts on the world than does the space programme: fast food production and consumption, the glorification of professional sports, subsidized gas and agriculture, a bloated government bureaucracy, massive corporations that exist to do nothing more than move money from one pile to another, the bloated salary of any North American who makes over 100K/year, and, of course, pretty much anything military.

A given space mission costs tens of millions of dollars, is profoundly peaceful, publicly transparent, economically stimulating and results both in increased human knowledge and spin-off industries in textiles, manufacturing, information technology, medicine, and scores of other related disciplines.  Now think about the fees of top Hollywood actors, athletes and CEOs, each of whom could fund a space mission per year on his salary alone.  Now think about the cost of a single nuclear aircraft carrier, which exceeds the price of the entire Apollo space programme that employed tens of thousands and that sent 14 men toward the Moon.  And now ask yourself how much return on investment society gets for allowing so much of our resources to be controlled and pooled by such players.

We choose each day to spend the bulk of our treasure on frivolities that do nothing more than two things: line the pockets of a privileged few and spin the wheels of a few local economies in an unsustainable fashion.   And yet some insist that a fraction of that total invested in peaceful scientific exploration, despite the profound and wide-reaching intellectual and economic implications of such exploration, is a selfish waste because we could be saving starving kids in Africa.  Until you accept that sacrificing our other luxuries –professional sports, Hollywood movies, the empty middle-man roles of the corporate  West, the military, or indeed our daily latte and 20 minute hot showers– would do the job a million times better than denying us knowledge of the universe, then you are engaging in both hypocrisy and poor math.

You want to save starving African children?  So do I.  But I also want to explore the cosmos.  Here’s the thing: there’s plenty of money out there to do both.  It’s all about priorities and will.

Want some more?  Here’s another great West Wing clip on the same topic.