Ad Astra
Volume 14, Number 2 March/April 2002


The Challenge of Space

To the editor,
I read with great interest a Washington Times article on the seemingly pointless mission of our nation's space program. I am an analyst focusing on a variety of commercial, civil, and military space programs. The author grossly oversimplified the "reason" we are spending money, time, and, in some cases lives, going into space.

Most people probably look at Moon missions, space stations, and deep space probes and wonder about the point of it all. Maybe going to the Moon was important given the political situation, but do we really need to build a space station or an orbiting telescope? Who cares about purer crystals and distant quasars?

In any event, the question as to why we should bother going into space at all is an important question, and one that is often answered with ill-defined and empty statements that leave taxpayers confused and annoyed. I believe most of the world's industrialized population has an appreciation for scientific discovery, but probably does not feel strongly that it is a good enough reason to send astronauts and very expensive probes into space. The programs go on only because they have taken on a life of their own. It should be noted that we do learn vast amounts of information with each program, whether they are considered failures or not, ranging from new management techniques, engineering solutions, and, yes, scientific discoveries.

Now to the main point: Why should we go into space? We are going into space for no specific or profound reason. We are simply in the very early stages of migrating into space, which is simply another natural environment, an ecological niche to exploit. In the beginning, and maybe for centuries to come, we will stumble about in this new niche, and blunders will cost lives as well as confidence. People like Mr. Reed [author of the article] will question the purpose of this or that program, and we desperately need that. We must always question where our money and efforts are going. But to question why we should go into space at all is like asking why humans left Africa a million years ago, built cities, and proceeded to develop a magnificent civilization. We did it because we are, for lack of a better way to describe it, "collectively programmed" to do so.

Ask as you should why we spend our tax money on this or that program, because these are things we can control one bit at a time. But as to why we should go into space, recognize that we are driven by biological forces established hundreds of millions of years ago. The difference is that when you mix reason and emotion into the equation, investigating what's just beyond the next obstacle will never be enough. And space, for all intents and purposes, is an infinite set of obstacles ready to be challenged by our insatiable curiosity.

Phil Smith

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