They shall beat their swords into spaceships, and their spears into skyhooks.

Chris Bowers presents an inspiring argument for space travel and I wanted to provide my own.

Engineers are often (justifiably) stereotyped as asking ‘what is the right tool?’ but never ‘why build?’  And, indeed, the pure technical challenges of space travel excite me no end.  My dream job would be Martian Structural Engineer — I want to design me some domes (or paraboloids).

However, independent of making me happy, exploring and living on other worlds is a valuable endeavor. Certainly, some emerging sciences—areology and comparative planetology to name two—depend on human expansion beyond Earth to collect data. But obscure (if important) research isn’t the real reason to go. The real reason is tied up in philosophical questions about life, the universe, and everything. In contemporary society, there are few viable candidates for a species-wide narrative. Exploration of and expansion into the extraterrestrial world is one. It may be mere Star Trek fantasizing, but, if so, it is a fantasy that casts humanity in an incredibly idealistic role. A Lunar town is valuable because it represents a step down this path to a more utopian future.

In the near term, space exploration (let alone settlement) is often criticized as a boondoggle in a world burdened with severe trials and tribulations. “Fix our own problems first,” is a slogan pithy enough to be shared by opponents to space missions and foreign aid alike. And, to the extent that a choice must be made between a Mars mission and vaccinations or disaster relief, it is difficult to be a space enthusiast. However, Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan, to mention one proposal, has a price tag of $70 billion — less than many weapon’s system appropriations, and an utter pittance compared to the real  boondoggle of our time: the Iraq War.

All this to say, the welfare state vs. space travel is a false choice, especially if the government stops looking at the space program as a give away to their favorite defense contractors and pursues less wasteful projects (e.g. not the space shuttle).  So I’m glad Clinton is advocating for space missions — of course she’s probably just pandering to some microtrend group at Houston Mission Control, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.  Better would be convincing Obama to take the JFK reminiscence one step further and expand the space program.  It might be one of those random second-tier issues where he could create a bipartisan coalition.  Someone needs to write a memo…

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