Watching the space shuttle Discovery’s fiery ascension from the launch pad Tuesday morning, I recalled comments I’ve heard recently, such as, “it’s such a waste of tax money, and, sometimes, lives.”

Those aren’t isolated opinions. The Challenger explosion in 1986 and Columbia’s tragic reentry in 2003 have fueled talk that the cost/benefit ratio of the space program tilts inexorably to the former.

Is the space program simply an all too expensive and dangerous play toy, or is there more to it?

The first thing we usually hear from the NASA critic is that the money spent on the space program could be better spent on social programs here on Earth.

In 2004, the federal government spent around $1 trillion for Social Security, Medicare and other health benefits. In that same year, NASA was funded to the tune of $8 billion. Ending space exploration to help these already heavily funded social programs would be like getting rid of your cat so you can put the money you’ll save on his food toward the purchase of a beach house in the Hamptons.

In reading the text of a speech delivered years ago by the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, I was intrigued by one analogy made by the former astronaut. He pointed out that a society is like a balloon– a successful one will expand in all directions. In other words, you can’t blow up only one side of a balloon, and if you try, it will pop. “People who say ‘social programs, not space exploration,’ will get neither,” Aldrin brilliantly noted.

In many ways, the quest for space is a social program.

What other social program can supply humanity, especially children, with fascination, awe, the inspiration to dream and achieve and the lesson that nothing is impossible?

Other social programs are an easier sell, however, and if there’s one thing a politician likes, it’s ease. Though fueled by money, the ultimate goal of the space program is not fiscal. The space program is only limited by imagination. A terrestrial social program’s limit and goal is the bottom of your pocket. One is much easier and more convenient to reach than the other. The nearest star system is about 250 trillion miles away. Your wallet is on the dresser. Which is the government more likely to focus on first?

Our quest for the heavens is pushed forward by wonder, genius, creativity, desire, and a drive toward discovery. It’s a huge ambition, one that excites, motivates and is committed to memory by all. What other social program does that for people? How many kids will grow up to reminisce about gathering around the television, giddy with nervous anticipation and jaw-dropping marvel, to watch the arrival of Uncle Billy’s Social Security check?

The space program fulfills childlike fantasies and dreams, propelling humanity forward physically and intellectually. This must continue, and can continue, not only without sacrificing any earthly necessity, but, quite conversely, to their benefit.

__________

Hilarious addendum:

Shortly after I posted this, “cdl” posted in the comments section, saying the following:

Just the other day I was having a conversation with my liberal sister in-law when a shot of the space shuttle came across the television. She said that going to space was such a waste of money. I pointed out that she was watching a news story on satellite tv. I don’t think she got it.

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