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Space Exploration and Need for National Optimism
How the Apollo 11 anniversary and the Webb Space Telescope's first images encourage us to look up at the heavens and ahead to brighter days
Yesterday marked the fifty-third anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the first steps humanity took away from its home planet. This milestone came just a week after NASA and its international partners unveiled the first breathtaking images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the venerable Hubble Space Telescope that’s given us awe-inspiring snapshots of the cosmos for the past thirty-plus years. In the years and decades to come, Webb will allow us to peer further back in time and deeper into the universe than ever before – and with even greater detail than its storied predecessor.
Accordingly, it's a good moment to step back and reflect on just why America explores space in the first place. After all, the Webb Space Telescope is just the latest in a long line of space exploration programs whose immense value only becomes apparent well after the fact. Apollo had its fair share of detractors and critics in the 1960s and 1970s, with one calling it a “Moondoggle” that diverted resources from more important and deserving national priorities. Likewise, Hubble was blasted as a billion-dollar blunder in the early 1990s when blurry initial images revealed microscopic flaws in the space telescope’s primary mirror – flaws that were corrected relatively quickly by a space shuttle repair mission in 1993.
Financial Costs, Geopolitical and Economic Benefits
For its part, Webb suffered repeated delays and cost overruns even before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed work on a number of projects in both the public and private sectors. Initially meant to launch in 2010 at a cost of $3 billion, Webb eventually launched last December at a final cost of more than $10 billion. Similarly, the enormous Space Launch System rocket has cost more and taken far longer to lift off from Kennedy Space Center than originally planned – though NASA now expects to finally launch the rocket that will take astronauts back to the Moon at the end of August or beginning of September.
All the same, criticisms focused on excessive delays and busted budgets tend to fall by the wayside when we see the results of America’s space exploration programs. That’s certainly been the case with Webb, whose first images have received a rapturous reception by the media and public alike. But few people would say that this sense of wonder and inspiration is the reason America invests as much of its national resources as it does in space exploration, and even fewer would say it’s worth the financial costs involved.
Indeed, geopolitics and national economic development remain the main practical motivations behind America’s space exploration programs – far more than the spirit of exploration and discovery or even the pursuit of scientific and technological progress. Issues of national prestige and international cooperation mix and mingle with more material, bread-and-butter domestic economic and political concerns to maintain support and funding for space exploration. That’s how and why the International Space Station survived by just one vote in the House of Representatives in 1993, and in part why NASA cooperates closely with the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on the Orion crew vehicle and the lunar Gateway space station - all at a time when countries from China and India to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched ambitious space exploration programs of their own. In short, elected officials rightly believe it’s important for the United States to maintain a world-leading aerospace industry – along with the jobs it provides – and space exploration plays a critical role in that effort.
But the dominance of these more material and geopolitical rationales for space exploration doesn’t mean we should discount or downplay the more aspirational and philosophical results that flow from this particular endeavor. They may not be fully articulated or even consciously intended as goals (even if leaders like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson did in fact recognize them in public speeches and statements at the dawn of the space age), but they’re real all the same. Indeed, a sense of optimism about the future and perspective on our place in the universe – in addition to national pride and prestige – may well be the most important things America derives from its space program.
In other words, there’s a reason President Biden took the time to convene a White House meeting to release Webb’s first images to the public just before he took off on a high-profile diplomatic trip to the Middle East.
How America’s space exploration mission can help build a stronger national narrative
For America’s political leaders, space exploration also speaks to the need to offer a hopeful narrative about the country and its potential, as well as an unabashed point of national pride Americans can embrace without reservation. Space exploration can offer a strong antidote to the relentless doomerism and pessimism that course like a poison through our national bloodstream, injected by prominent voices on both left and right. It’s not just a matter of the technical achievements involved in space exploration, impressive as they admittedly may be, or even the limits to which it can push us as individuals and societies More than anything else, space exploration expands the frontiers of human knowledge, broadens our sense of the possible, and grants us the perspective that can only come from a more-or-less conscious awareness of the vastness of the cosmos – or what some modern philosophers call the “view from above.”
It’s far too much to expect space exploration to provide this sort of optimistic political narrative all on its own; patriotism and belief in one’s country can’t and doesn’t derive from any one achievement or enterprise, no matter how inspirational or impressive. But it can serve as a spark to think more expansively and hopefully about the country and humanity as a whole, especially at a time when so many of us seem so down on our nation and our species. Space exploration gives us an example of what we can accomplish as a society even as we seem to be coming apart at the seams in so many ways. America can and did put a man on the Moon despite the limitations of 1960s-era technology and the myriad convulsions shaking the foundations of American society at the time, and today we can and are looking back through time and space to the very beginnings of our universe despite our very real societal fractures and very dire threats our democracy faces from within.
It’d be good to keep all this in mind when we lay into yet another delayed and overbudget NASA program. To be certain, these programs should be on time and on budget – there should be no tolerance for big aerospace companies that make promises they can’t reasonably keep on either front. But even taking far-too-chronic cost overruns and delays into account, America receives far more from its investment in these programs than it pays in either time or money. The moral and spiritual value of space exploration has proven just as beneficial to the United States as the domestic economic and geopolitical advantages America accrues from its status as the world’s leading spacefaring nation.
For now, though, we can all take in the astonishing images Webb has started beaming back to Earth from its perch a million miles away and take pride as we look back on the epochal achievement of Apollo 11. Each in their own way, they’re powerful reminders of what we can accomplish – reminders we desperately need at a time when it feels like many of us have lost faith in ourselves, our fellow citizens, and humanity as a whole.
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