William Safire has a brilliant column on why the space program is worth it. There are too many who argue that the money we put into NASA would be better spent here on Earth. There are a couple of responses to this. The first is that the budget for NASA is a miniscule fraction of the budget for social services in this country, and we’ve not yet been able to eliminate poverty – nor will throwing a few billion more to much other than end up greasing the machinery of government.
Furthermore, we’ve always been a species that has an instinctive need for exploration. How can one quantify the costs and the benefits of inspiration. I can easily see some child living in the inner city or in the hills of West Virginia who sees images of Mars taken by Spirit on TV and decides that someday he or she would like to be an astronaut. The moon shots, brief as they were, inspired millions of people to become scientists and engineers. The advances made and the lives saved by those contributions are beyond any measure.
Finally, there’s one last reason, perhaps the most important of all. The best explanation I have ever heard for why space is important comes, appropriately enough, from science fiction. Writer J. Michael Straczynski wrote this line from Babylon 5 that truly puts space exploration in perspective in only a few brilliantly crafted sentences:
Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu, Einstein, Morobuto, Buddy Holly, Aristophanes .. and all of this .. all of this was for nothing unless we go to the stars.