Why space exploration isn’t a public good

After the announcement that Columbia had been lost this morning, I was listening to one of the local talk jockeys pontificating about why space exploration isn’t a public good, and therefore government should not be spending public money on it. Now, I suppose that might be good conservative theory, but it rang rather hollow today. I’m not about to start an argument about that subject, but it did get me thinking about why we do these things.

I’ve been following our space program to varying degrees since I was old enough to have memories. I remember watching the gun carriages rolling down the streets at the funerals for astronauts Grissom, White, and Chafee when they died in Apollo 1 and at the same time remembering the Christmas message from Apollo 8, my father making sure his kids were awake to see Eagle touching down at Tranquility Base, and see Neil Armstrong’s first steps. Being convinced that we could damn near do anything when NASA got Apollo 13 home. And later, when Alan Bean hit his golf shot, and Skylab, and the dedication ceremony for the first shuttle, Enterprise. I still remember the day in my first computer class at MSU when Challanger was lost, and I can still see images from the explosion projected in the theatre of my mind. To this day when that tape is played I mostly can’t look at it. Why do they do it, and we fund it?

While I was musing on this (oxygen deprivation makes for interesting musing sometimes) people were calling in to the radio show to promote the medical stuff like MRI scans, satellite mapping, missile defense, and other technical stuff that we’ve gained as part of the effort, etc., and some others were putting forth the notion that it would have been SO much better done if was all private enterprise. I think that all of them missed the most obvious reason for sending people to space: that’s where the frontier is.

There have been individuals from all nations throughout history who explored the edges, but I think the United States is a bit different. America was settled by people with an outward-looking perspective. After all, what other kind of people would cross an ocean to what likely would be a very uncertain future? To us, it is not only normal to wonder about what’s beyond the next hill, but it is expected that we’ll go there and take a look. That kind of restless, curious thinking explored and settled a continent, and is in contrast to the people who stayed back, the ones who think that all the challenges worth dealing with are in the back yard. I think most Europeans (note the British are not in my opinion European) fall into that category, unfortunately. They don’t think there are frontiers anymore.

Americans, I think, still believe in frontiers. They also believe that exploring the frontiers is one of our greatest callings – what the hell else are we here for? Even if there were no physical frontier, we would invent one. The space program is one expression of that need to explore the frontiers, to find a better place, to go where others say we can’t.

Today, we lost seven of the pathfinders. May God keep them and their families and may America always remember them, with both sorrow for their loss and pride for showing us the way.