Is space exploration a waste of money or a necessary endeavor?

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite (Sputnik) into orbit.  The Soviets had "beaten us" into space.  That was a "wake-up call" to the United States on many levels.

In response, the U.S. began a massive program to catch up with, and pass, Russian technology.  That effort led America to the first manned landings on, and safe return from, the Moon in 1969.  Since then, we have sent unmanned landers as far away as Titan, a moon of Saturn, and produced astounding photographs from the surface of that frozen world, where there are oceans of liquid methane.  

Many other amazing achievements since then have occurred, and the efforts continue, not only by the U.S., but by other nations including India, China, and even Qatar.  

In the U.S., those efforts consume billions of dollars.  Many question whether it is worth the cost, especially by a nation that is trillions of dollars in debt, most of it to a foreign enemy nation (China).  We have been compared to a profligate heir, squandering money on vanity items such as yachts and antique luxury cars while descending toward bankruptcy.  

Others claim that there is so-called spinoff technology that is more than worth the cost of the space program.  More important, perhaps, there is the claim that since our enemies will militarize space, we require a Space Force, and all that it entails, to defend against any attack from orbital weapons and other threats.  

Each of those arguments, pro and con, has at least some degree of merit.  There is, however, one additional factor, sometimes dismissed as trivial, but which has a subtle yet tectonic importance.  One might compare it to a primeval imperative, or perhaps a sort of manifest destiny.  

Before discussing that part of it, I must reveal that, as a fiscal and social conservative, I decry the forcible collection of public money for any unnecessary purpose, and I chafe at the idea of doing so for what amounts to metaphysical and philosophical purposes.  Despite that, and setting aside for the moment all the practical and military benefits of the space program, I have to confess that I cannot imagine a world in which no one would care to look over the next hill or to cross the next ocean.   

To that end, I am grateful that private companies have begun to participate in space exploration, not merely in support roles, but in the actual launching of space probes.  I look forward to the day when their "impure motives" of profit drive us to mine the asteroid belt, supplying us with vast quantities of minerals, metals, and other resources to make life easier and safer on Planet Earth.  If such efforts also result in deflecting planet-destroying meteors from striking Earth, that will be invaluable.  

I can never, however, escape entirely the idea that there is value, however ineffable it may be, in exploring space for reasons that have no quantifiable, material benefit.  

There are great questions, questions of mind and spirit, which we cannot avoid without losing a vital part of our human existence.  Are we alone in the universe, or are there galactic civilizations out there?  Is Mars a dead planet, or are there artifacts of ancient life forms beneath the red sand, some of which may yet harbor life?  

The discovery of phenomena we know as dark matter, and dark energy, hints that the universe is so much more wondrous than we can imagine.   

Given the vastness of uncounted billions of galaxies, stars, and planets — whether or not we are alone in beholding it — can we never rise above our own microscopic focus on our temporal concerns?  

All of this places me in my zone of discomfort, because I think our political interests in life, liberty, and the legitimate pursuit of happiness are of profound importance to our human spirit.

Government has no right to confiscate our wealth to send a probe to Mars.  None.  But since it is doing so anyway, I cannot help but hope that what it finds will strike a chord in the hearts of humans everywhere.  I hope that we have done something worthwhile, something for the ages.  

Image via Pixnio.