Let’s stipulate one thing: there’s absolutely no reason for us to go to space. It does nothing to feed us, to clothe us, to protect us, to heal us. It’s dangerous and hideously expensive too, a budget-busting luxury that policy makers and administrators have spent decades trying to defend—always unsuccessfully because the fact is, there’s no practical defense for it. So stand down the rockets, take down the space centers, pocket the money and let’s move on. Still want the adventure of going to space? That’s what they make movies for.
Now that we’ve established that, let’s stipulate the opposite: Space is precisely where the human species ought to be going. We accept that we’re a warring species. We accept that we’re a loving species. We accept that we’re an artistic and inventive and idiosyncratic species. Then we surely must accept that we’re a questing species. Questing species don’t much care for being stuck on one side of an ocean and so they climb aboard boats—indeed they invent boats—to cross it. They don’t much care for having their path blocked by a mountain and so they climb it for no reason other than finding out what’s on the other side. Accept that, and you can’t not accept that we have to embrace space.
April 12 marks the 60th anniversary of the day Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space, taking off in his Vostok 1 spacecraft, spending 88 minutes making a single orbit of the Earth, and returning home to a species that seemed forever been changed by his efforts. The date will mark, too, the 60th anniversary of the by-now familiar argument that journeys like Gagarin’s and all of the ones that followed achieve nothing that can be touched and pointed to as a practical dividend of the effort made and the resources expended.
I found myself turning the old debate this way and that over the last week, when I was reading a column in the Guardian with the provocative headline, “Revive the U.S. space program? How about not,” by essayist Nicholas Russell. It opens with a mention of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 spoken word poem, “Whitey on the Moon,” which compellingly lamented the hard social truth that the U.S. was spending $24 billion in 1960s money on the Apollo program at the same time 10% of Americans were living in poverty, with Blacks suffering at three times the rate of whites.
“Was all that money I made last year (for Whitey on the moon?)” Scott-Heron wrote. “How come there ain’t no money here? (Hm! Whitey’s on the moon.)”
Russell goes on to cite the estimated cost of the new Artemis lunar program, which some analysts have placed at $30 billion; the role—a troubling one as he sees it—of the military in so many space projects, and the ongoing scourge of racism and inequality on Earth that persists while we still keep looking spaceward. Then he mentions, by way of caution, a University of Arizona proposal to send seed, spore, sperm and egg samples of 6.7 million terrestrial species to the moon as a sort of space ark in case life on Earth should come to an end. “When the vastness of space is cited as a means of escape from disaster, it’s exceedingly difficult not to believe nihilism acts as the prime motivator,” Russell argues. “Rather than sparking inspiration, it speaks of blatant fatalism about what is worth saving, a preference for the lofty and unpopulated … with delusions of innovation and heroism.”
Russell is right about some things—especially about the continuing blight of racism. But expenditures on space and expenditures on social programs have never been a zero-sum proposition, any more than any dollar the U.S. government spends on anything at all—the military, farm subsidies, tax cuts for corporations—is by definition a dollar not spent on something else. And the Artemis price tag is indeed high—but only if you look at it as a standalone figure. In the context of the federal budget? NASA funding currently accounts for just 0.4% of the total the government spends each year—down from 4% in the golden era of Apollo. The military’s role in the space program is inevitable, even if Russell sees it as regrettable. Rockets are rockets, after all, and physics is physics, and if the first machines that blasted humans off the Earth were originally designed as ballistic missiles, well, that was what the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had on the shelf. What’s more, every Soviet R-7 rocket or American Atlas that was used to send an astronaut or cosmonaut to orbit was one fewer that could be used in a theater of war.
And as for that space ark? Well yes, it does suggest a certain fatalism. But the fact is, we are eminently capable of screwing the global pooch, to paraphrase the old Mercury astronauts. Unless you’re confident that no autocrat or hermit king with nuclear weapons and a button in reach won’t do something impulsive, storing the Earth’s genetic essence for safekeeping does not seem like a completely insane idea.
That doesn’t mean space exploration is inherently nihilistic, however. Look at the old footage of the global reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Watch the worldwide relief when the Apollo 13 crew—three people the vast majority of the planet had never met—made it home safely. Consider the reaction today when a rover lands on Mars or a spacecraft whizzes past Pluto or a pair of women aboard the space station perform the first all-female spacewalk.
Yes, we can live without traveling to space. Indeed, we did perfectly well over all of the millennia that preceded April 12, 1961. We can meet most of our needs when we stay on Earth—we can raise our families and earn our salaries and feed our bellies. But we feed something less literal, more lyrical when we extend ourselves as far as we can. Once that meant crossing an ocean. Now it means more. Space is out there—and we should be too.