Ad astera per aspera

             There is an old Latin phrase that captures the essence of current spaceflight: Ad astra per aspera , which translates as “To the stars through difficulties.” We tend to take our spacecraft, crewed and unscrewed, currently scattered about our solar system for granted.  They rarely make the news, unless something goes wrong.  And yet, what we now take for granted would strike people from just a few decades ago as marvels almost beyond imagining. 

At this very moment Earth has three functioning satellites orbiting Mars, one orbiting Saturn and one orbiting an asteroid called Ceres.   One rover designed to function for 90 days is still busy rolling around the Martian surface after more than ten years.  A much larger rover, the size of an SUV and nuclear powered, is there as well. Meanwhile, two space probes are in transit to distant destinations. One is heading to Jupiter. Another is on its way to Pluto, scheduled for a flyby next month, on July 14.

            With so much activity out there in the final frontier, and with it so rarely making the news, we might imagine that such voyages are easy to do.  But the failure today of SpaceX’s launch of their Falcon 9 on a “routine,” unscrewed cargo run to the International Space Station (an object larger than an American football field with an interior volume equal to a five bedroom house) serves as a reminder that this really is rocket science and that in fact, going off world is still incredibly difficult.  We should be more amazed by our successes than the periodic failures. 

            It doesn’t take much to trash a mission.  A loose bolt, a frayed wire, a loose connection can quickly turn a muli-million dollar rocket into so much scrap metal beyond any hope of rescue.  But we need to keep at it, keep trying, and never give up. SpaceX will find the reason for today’s launch anomaly, fix it, and continue. 

            If human beings were in the habit of giving up whenever something goes wrong, we would never have made it out of the cave.  In fact, no child would ever even learn how to walk or ride a bike.

            And for those who believe this sort of thing is a waste of money, you’re just flat wrong.  Obviously there are many practical benefits of space travel.  It contributed to how we got the modern computer industry and life-saving medical technology.  Global positioning satellites and communication satellites have changed the world and made it better: you do like your satellite TV and radio, don’t you, along with instantaneous communication.  Weather satellites have saved countless lives. 

But there’s so much more to space travel than just what’s practical.  As I’ve written before, and as I’ll write again, arguments about the practical benefits of space travel seem to be missing an important something that those who hate the space program are also missing.

            I believe that even if there were no practical benefits to our voyages into space, our expenditures on it—amounting to about a tenth of one percent of the nation’s gross domestic product—would still be worth it.   How so?  Well, is life all about practicality and nothing but practicality?  Do you spend every waking moment working?  Is life merely about survival and existing?

            Do you use your money to rent the smallest one room apartment you can afford, eat only beans, drink only water and then donate all your remaining money to good causes?  Or do you waste some of your money on eating food besides just the bare minimum you need to survive?  Did you spend money on a television?  A radio?  Maybe every month you blow part of your pay on cable or satellite bills?  Perhaps you spent money renting a DVD or even went to see a movie?  Did you go out to eat when you could have made better and cheaper food at home?  Did you buy a CD, download an MP3, or get a video game?  Maybe you wasted money on going to a concert or the theater.  Do you know how many meals all that wasteful spending of yours could have provided to the disadvantaged?  And look at you, I’ll bet you live in a house and waste gobs on your mortgage and insurance.  You probably spend money just to keep your lawn green and trimmed.  You even probably have a car—maybe two—when you could just use a bicycle or walk on your way to that homeless shelter where you donate all the time that you’re not at work or sleeping.

            Consider: Michelangelo spent about four years painting the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  He was paid a lot of money.   And it was only art.  Couldn’t they just have painted that ceiling white?  Did we really need all those complex pictures on it?  Couldn’t Michelangelo have better used his efforts to help the poor?  Just think of all that money the church wasted on him when it could have gone to provide food, housing, and better healthcare for the poor. 

            Nowadays, Hollywood spends billions of dollars every year.  Why don’t they use all that money for something worthwhile instead?  How many meals could have been provided with the budget of just the latest Transformers movie?  Outrageous salaries were paid to those actors and producers and writers and technicians.  I mean, just look at how long those credits are at the end of the film listing all those people who took money from the mouths of the poor just to give bored teenagers something to do on a Saturday night.

            What good did Shakespeare ever do for anyone?  Where’s the practical benefit in his scribblings upon the page?  He devoted his life to writing plays and poetry and what does he or the world have to show for it?  Were any poor given a meal by him putting words on paper?

            But there is, after all, more to life than just the practical.  It isn’t all just about giving money to the poor, is it?  If we do not leave ourselves room for art, for music, for scholarship, for exploration, and for all the rest that inspires, then haven’t we become even poorer than the poorest outcast?  Would the critics of the space program suggest no money be devoted to art, to movie making, to music and books, until we take care of all those who are hurting?   Do we cast stones at poets who spend all that time creating poems when they could be devoting their days to volunteering in a homeless shelter?  Were Walt Whitman and Henry Longfellow evil?

            Those who think the space program is a waste of money simply haven’t thought things through very well.  This isn’t an either/or situation.  Those who decry money spent on space are spouting clichés that may sound compassionate, but in the final analysis are just silly.  When the philanthropist Ruth Lilly in 2002 gave approximately $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, which publishes Poetry Magazine, most people thought it wonderful.  But some critics complained that the money “could have been given to the poor.” 

            Frankly, I worry about people who think giving money for poetry a waste, just as I worry about those so earthbound they never bother to look up and wonder about the stars.  Can we really put a price on the iconic image of the Earth rising over the moon, photographed by the astronauts of Apollo?  What kind of a person is it that would try?