Forty years ago today, I was a four-and-a-half-year-old tot sitting on the floor of my grandparents' den staring at a black and white television with rabbit ear antennas as astronauts walked on the Moon. I was so small, but I remember it all so clearly. In that single moment, suddenly, the great big universe was within reach.
Imagine ... literally walking ... On. The. Moon.
We're all so understandably jaded these days. That bus ride to the heavens seems so ordinary and routine. The thing is, it really isn't. Just as it was four decades ago, it still takes incalculable bravery and intestinal fortitude for our nation and those very few special people to breach the comfort of our atmosphere and go into the void of space. Only the best and brightest scientists get to work on the space program. And if you want to really know how rare an astronaut is, think back to high school. How many uber-geeks were also elite athletes, hmm? Exactly.
The fact that it has become more or less "routine" is a testament to the advances we have made, but in reality, the odds against launching a massive rocket with a vehicle that can go out there and come back safely -- with people -- is still managed against staggering odds. Listen to the news reports just a little closer ... a flock of birds or a misplaced bank of clouds can still scrub a launch.
Going there takes guts.
The quest for space exploration today, given the enormous problems on terra firma and an economy that teeters on the brink can seem like a vanity play and a waste of precious time and money. On the surface, that argument seems to hold water. So, let's talk about the money. Did you know that less than one penny of every tax dollar goes to fund the ENTIRE space program? It represents 0.8% of the U.S. budget. That includes monies for cutting edge work by physicists, mathematicians, chemists, biologists, engineers, programmers and more at universities across the nation.
What do we get for those pennies? You wouldn't be reading this on the Huffington Post without it. You cannot turn on your TV, radio, speak on the phone, play a video game or even cook food or drive a car without reaping direct rewards of the space program. Yesterday, I found a marvelous list of space program spinoffs, and not just in computer-related technologies. Spending money with NASA stimulates every sector of our economy: Consumer/Home/Recreation, Environmental and Resource Management, Health and Medicine, Industrial Productivity and Manufacturing, even Public Safety and Transportation. Even as a diehard NASA-nut, I was amused and excited by this list.
Or consider this: Every NASDAQ company is a progeny of the space program.
It's easy to justify much of the space program, but the big open question that remains is manned space flight: sending people up there. It takes a whole lot more technology to support and return people bouncing about the heavens than it does a few tinker toys.
Questioning whether man should continue to go into space is like questioning whether it was worth braving the seas after Magellan circumnavigated the globe. Gee ... what was the return on investment of those programs? Can you say ... America?
To fail to continue to send people into space, to fail to go to the Moon or Mars or beyond, not for the sake of going to kick up some dust but to actually learn about those environments and how they relate to our own sustainability, would be to shrink our horizons and become more pedestrian and self-absorbed than we already are.
Can we really afford that?