(Note: I wrote this essay three years ago as my entry into the Moon Society’s Apollo 13 Commemorative Essay Contest. It took 3rd place — which I shared with two other writers who also wrote fine essays. I stumbled across it while looking through my computer files for material relevant to my NaNoWriMo entry this year.)
Since 1960, 101 people, mostly Russians and Americans, have died either during the course of space flight or in accidents related to preparations for space flight. According to NTSB statistics, almost that many people in America alone will die, in a single day, in automobile accidents. In a single week in this country, based on U.S. Labor Department statistics, more people will die in workplace-related accidents than have ever died in space flight related accidents. In a single year in this country, based on U.S. NTSB statistics, more people will die in airplane accidents than have died in space flight related accidents. Any argument that manned space exploration is physically “too risky” would therefore require us to ban, by the same argument, driving to the supermarket to shop for eggs, to work for a living or flying a Piper Cub.
Manned space exploration is without doubt expensive. Economists would ask, what is the benefit we obtain at the risk of the money spent? As for that risk, one spends money to make money. The technological spinoffs of the Apollo program alone created more jobs and economic opportunity – in short, made more money – than has ever been publicly acknowledged. Input the term “Apollo program spinoffs” on any Internet search engine and consider the ways in which our economy benefitted from that one program. As an humble example, today’s athletic shoes are based on materials derived for use in the space suits NASA astronauts wore on the Moon; at the other end of the spectrum, magnetic resonance imaging depends on digital signal processing techniques developed for Apollo. What is the economic value of early diagnosis of a brain tumor?
Arguing the technological benefits of manned space exploration, however, might be beside the point in assessing the relevant economic risks. Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo Program would have cost about 300 billion dollars in 2008. Congress, just before Christmas of 2008, gave over three times that amount to bail out a banking industry that made bad business decisions. The decision to undertake the risk and bail out the banking industry was made after only the most minimal debate of the risks and consequences. What benefit will we, as taxpaying Americans, receive for that economic risk?
There is risk and expense involved in manned space exploration but the risk appears to be no more than that present in those everyday activities described as “business as usual.” Perhaps, though, since it seems evident that even this level of risk is considered unacceptable by many people, one should identify what manned space exploration actually does for us as human beings.
Manned space exploration, by definition, takes us where no one has gone before. Perhaps it isn’t so obvious that it increases not only the store of human knowledge and experience, but the level of human potential. “Human potential” in this context means the scope of what we dare to dream of accomplishing, for ourselves and for our children. Manned space exploration is not only the stuff of dreams, but in a very literal and much more important sense, the stuff from which dreams originate.
Before Apollo “going to the Moon” was only a dream, an idea belonging to science fiction. But on July 20, 1969, we knew that human beings were on the Moon. “Going to the Moon” passed forever from the nebulous realm of science fiction into the factual realm of human history and experience. To look at the Moon during the Apollo landings was to know, and not merely to have faith, that anything is possible to human beings. What Apollo did for us then is what all manned space exploration does for us: When dreams are made real previously unknown dreams become possible. The human potential increases.
To explore, redefine and expand our full potential as human beings, to restore and maintain that spark of the heroic within not just some of us but each of us, is therefore the benefit conferred by manned space exploration, and that is worth the risk. Manned space exploration proves to us that whatever our problems, we can find a solution. Manned space exploration is the living, dynamic symbol of hope for the future, of that better tomorrow that is the fundamental promise of America. To acknowledge anything less is to deny our full potential – and what that potential might become in the future where no dreams have yet reached.