Wednesday, October 28, 2020 -
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One small step, four long decades

When President John Kennedy commanded the scientific troops to put a man on the moon “by the end of this decade,” he fired up a search so intense that dangerous lines were crossed to reach the goal. Needless to say, his inspiration outlived him and testified to the electric effect he had as a leader.

Many question the exploration of space, saying the billions and billions could be better spent on poverty and countless other human needs here on earth. What the critics don’t realize is that money spent in space directly improves life on earth. The immense technological demands of space travel yield countless enhancements below. Just one example and we rest our case: computers. The technological advances in computers are directly attributable to the gargantuan technological needs to put a man on the moon.

Not that these enhancements were predicted. Space travel is akin to pure, as opposed to applied, research. In pure research the benefits are unpredictable and immeasurable. Space research works that way. From the poorest to the wealthiest human being, from one corner of the earth to the next, the ways our life works, or, at a minimum, the aspirations we share, owe an unlimited debt to that valiant call by President Kennedy. Advanced jet air travel, GPS systems, weather predicting and a thousand other take-them-for-granted ways of life would be impossible without satellites orbiting the earth.

Of course, President Kennedy was responding to the fact that the Soviets beat us to the punch, launching their “Sputnik” rocket into orbit in 1957. At the time, it was not exciting, but chilling. The prospect of the Soviets attaining the capacity to attack us via space weapons seemed, in those technologically naive days, around the corner. Our pursuit of space was driven by military, not civilian, goals and fears. There alone, the unintended consequences of pure research loom large and persuasive.

Keep the NASA budget fully funded. Keep the quest for knowledge of “outer space” alive and well. There is no telling the benefits humankind will reap.

Meanwhile, weapons in space, or even weapon defenses in space, are still far in the distance. Blessedly, the fears of 1957, the clarion presidential call of 1961, have, for once in history, yielded to finer, human-enhancing rather than human-destroying results. Four long decades later, the one small step does loom as a giant leap for mankind.

That giant step could be bigger still. Since the early 1970s, the US has not been back to the moon. American priorities in space have changed. We regret that. First, the human thirst for knowledge of the unknown is self-validating; we should stretch into space as much as possible. Second, some larger and more difficult goals in space would yield larger benefits for humanity, a reality irrelevant to the fact that we cannot predict or name them now.

One final observation: How delightful, how incandescent that some believe we never went to the moon at all. It was all a conspiracy. A staged, government propaganda job. No small step. No giant leap. Like the man in the moon, conspiracies never die.

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