The two space shuttle disasters caused a lot of people to stop and reconsider America's space effort. We are expending a great deal of money for the privilege of watching a few individuals spend a limited number of hours in orbit around this planet. What's it all about? Why are we doing this? What is the benefit?
There are plenty of scientists who disapprove of man's role in the space program. Professor Robert Parks from University of Maryland, for example, wrote some time ago in Ad Astra, the monthly magazine of the National Space Society, that "if people want to live in harsh environments, let them colonize Antarctica or the bottom of the oceans...." He "...cannot imagine any resources that would justify the costs of space travel to retrieve them...." Professor Parks seems to speak for an influential segment of the scientific community.
On FOX News Miller Time, Dennis Miller recently addressed his belief that we should set aside the space program for the time being, in favor of more important projects here on Earth. His arguments were amusing (as usual), but thought provoking as well.
If this is the prevalent view, then what are we doing out there?
This question can best be answered by first understanding a typical scientist's perspective. A scientist asks difficult questions about the universe, and then collects data wherein he hopes to find some of the answers. The key word here is data, followed closely by questions. A good scientist would never waste grant money sending a human to collect information that a machine could get for much less. A good scientist cannot be concerned with exotic equipment that may be coming down the pike - he must make the most efficient use of what is at hand. And that equipment frequently is obsolete and second-rate.
It is, therefore, easy to understand a researcher's resentment when he sees $10 million go up in rocket exhaust fumes to launch a billion dollar shuttle into near earth orbit, when he could have spent a total of $2 million to launch a deep space probe that would send back valuable information for several years.
The point these good folks have missed is that space travel is not about science - it's about horizons.
Five hundred years ago people understood this principle clearly. The oceans presented a very difficult barrier with horizons that seemed to extend indefinitely. With time, however, humankind discovered that our planet is limited. Today we are genuinely concerned that our presence on this planet may be altering it for the worse. Our planetary horizons have all but vanished. I was one of the lucky ones, spending a year in the uncharted wilderness of Antarctica. For most people today, however, the sense of "beyond the horizon" is something they will never experience personally.
Should this sense become pervasive, our society will stagnate and collapse into itself. Examine our world today. Note the sense of despair and discouragement that seems to permeate the fabric of our culture.
We need horizons. In the words of a popular television program, we need the surety that some of us will always be able to "...go where no one has gone before."
The universe we live in has no limits in the sense that we normally deal with such things. No matter how far we extend ourselves, there always will be another horizon. The survival of our species ultimately depends on this. So long as we can face the unknown, so long as we can challenge the limits of our existence, so long as we can focus on a distant horizon, humans will continue as a functioning element in our incredible cosmos.
Humankind is taking the first faltering footsteps from its cradle - and Parks and Miller would decry the cost of our shoes.