Why We Need NASA

When I was a very young lad, I dreamed of growing up and becoming an astronaut, more specifically working on rockets and traveling through space.  I also wanted to be a stand up comic.  True story.  Clearly, I was no good at either, and my inability to hit a curve ball hampered my dreams later of becoming a big league ball player.  Regardless, I still enjoy America's past time and a good stand up comic routine from time to time, and I still follow closely the escapades of space exploration, the exciting discoveries in physics and astronomy, and NASA.  
For this reason, I was saddened by the recent retiring of the NASA Space Shuttle program, closing the book on a period of history I remember fondly.  I know that many people have a "where I was" story for several significant and historical events throughout history, but I have but a few.  Probably my earliest and most indelible one is the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.  I followed the coverage leading up to the launch closely with my parents, as the event had the same implication as the first Apollo moon landing in my mind.  

The morning of the launch, I distinctly remember hearing the news of the explosion over a school P.A. system while sitting in Mr. Maneely's jazz band class.  Yes, I played trumpet in a grade school jazz band.  True story.  I also remember walking to the school's library where administration had turned on a television to watch the events unfold.  While I understood the significance of the event when I heard the announcement, seeing all of the students and faculty in the library, and witnessing the event firsthand, made me realize how great an impact this tragedy had made in our lives.

Prior to the Challenger, I was intrigued with the idea of space.  The significance of this event, however, pushed that intrigue over the edge, and it became an insatiable curiosity.  I still have my scrap book, the only scrap book I have ever made, of all of the news clippings from the event.  And while too young to understand or even care about politics, I vaguely remember hearing and understanding the moving words of President Reagan, as he addressed the country during this troubling time.  At one point, he even addressed "school children" directly, and I understood that he was talking to me, offering consolation and inspiration for us to continue to be pioneers.

Because I have and continue to be passionate about space exploration, I am a supporter of NASA.  I have on occasion engaged with critics who indict the space program as being a complete waste of our time, energy and resources.  Why not focus on exploring the earth instead of far off places that have no relevance to our lives here? ... that was always the argument.  I always focused on relating the NASA budget to other government spending, though I never found it to be a solid argument myself.  Money spent is money spent, and if you don't believe in the cause, it's money wasted.  I intrinsically knew the benefits of the space program, but I had difficulty voicing this to those who have never understood or been intrigued with the mysteries of space.

This changed recently when I found inspiring words from one of my modern day heros, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium.  Yes, one of my heroes is an astrophysicist.  True story.  He eloquently and sagaciously lays out the reason we, as a culture and as a civilization, should continue our exploration of space.  I've included the transcript below, though I found this video, narrated by the always animated Tyson himself, to be more profound.  So, if you are apprehensive about the exploration of space or simply question the need for it, hopefully you will find inspiration in this ... enjoy!

Space. Three hundred billion dollar industry worldwide. NASA is actually a tiny percentage of that. Interesting. How small a percent NASA is to the total world spending of space. That little bit, however, is what inspires dreams. Every corporation in here with representatives to this conference: If you ever even touched a science mission, you'd lead off with that in your quarterly reports -- annual reports.

Because, it inspires, it is the act of discovery that empowers nations in the world to undertake this activities. We know this. Apollo 8. That was the FIRST TIME anybody ever LEFT Earth! With a destination in mind. Yeah, figure-eighted around the moon. Photo. Of Earth. Rising over the lunar landscape. Earthrise over the moon. There was Earth. Seen not as the mapmaker would have you identify it. No. The countries were not color coded. With boundaries. It was seen as nature intended it to be viewed. Oceans. Land. Clouds.

We went to the moon and we discovered Earth!  I claim we discovered Earth. For the first time. How does that affect culture? I got a list! The instance that photo comes out, that is the identifying cover picture of the whole Earth catalog. Thinking of Earth as a whole. Not as a place where nations war. As a whole. 1970. The comprehensive Clean Air Act. Earth Day was birthed, March 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970. The organization Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971. Where do you even get that phrase from!? No one thought of that phrase before that photo was published. Because every globe in your classroom has countries painted on it. DDT gets banned in 1972. We're still going to the moon; we're still looking back to Earth. Clean Water Act, 1971. 1972, Endangered Species Act. The catalytic converter gets put in, in 1973. Unleaded gas, 1973. We're still at war in Vietnam! There's still campus on rest. Yet, we found the time to start thinking about Earth.

That is space, operating on our culture and you cannot even put a price on that. That is-- that is, a nation, that is a world, we're acting to a new perspective on what it is to be alive, on this planet we all share. We need to look at NASA not as a hand-out, but as an investment. Because, as goes, the health of space varying ambitions, so to goes the spiritual, the emotional, the intellectual, the creative and the economic ambitions of a nation. So goes the future of America.