Mike Griffin, head of NASA, gave an excellent speach on why we go to space: Space Exploration: Real Reasons and Acceptable Reasons

If you ask why we’re going back to the moon and, later, beyond, you can get a variety of answers. The President, quite correctly said that we do it for purposes of scientific discovery, economic benefit and national security. I’ve given speeches on each of those topics, and I think these reasons can be clearly shown to be true. And Presidential Science Advisor Jack Marburger has said that questions about space exploration come down to whether or not we want to bring the solar system within mankind’s sphere of economic influence. I think that is extraordinarily well put.

These reasons have in common the fact that they can be discussed within the circles of public policy making. They can be debated on their merits, on logical principles. They can be justified. They are what I am going to call tonight “Acceptable Reasons.” You can attach whatever importance you want to any of those factors, and some citizens will weight some factors more and some will weight them less, but most of us would agree that they are, indeed, relevant factors.

But who talks like that? Who talks about doing something for purposes of scientific or economic gain or national security other than in policy circles? If anybody asked Lindberg why he crossed the Atlantic – and many did –he never indicated that he personally flew the Atlantic to win the Orteig prize. His backers might have done it in part for that, but Lindberg did it for other reasons.

If you ask Burt Rutan why he designed and built Voyager, and why Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager flew it around the world, it wasn’t for any money involved, it was because it was one of the last unconquered feats in aviation. If you ask Burt and his backer Paul Allen why they developed a vehicle to win the X-Prize, it wasn’t for the money. They spent twice as much as they made.

I think we all know why people do some of these things. They are well-captured in many famous phrases. When Sir George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he said “Because it is there.” He didn’t say that it was for economic gain.
We know these reasons, and tonight I will call them “Real Reasons”. Real Reasons are intuitive and compelling to all of us, but they’re not immediately logical. They’re exactly the opposite of Acceptable Reasons, which are eminently logical but neither intuitive nor emotionally compelling. The Real Reasons we do things like exploring space involve competitiveness, curiosity and monument building. So let’s talk about them. . . . .

Real Reasons are not amenable to cost/benefit analysis. I’m reminded of the famous quote “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” by the character Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” It’s one of my favorites. Well, in today’s America it’s smart, it’s popular, it’s clever to be a cynic. And a certain amount of it is appropriate; a healthy skepticism of bold claims is necessary. But too much skepticism causes us to deny a part of what we are.

Real Reasons are old fashioned. How many of us grew up reading Tom Swift, or Jack Armstrong, All American Boy? Or other similar books stories? Not great literature, for sure, but they exemplified many of the values I think we like to see in people: inventiveness, competitiveness, boldness, and a sense of good feeling about what it was to be an American, in very simplistic ways but ones which hit close to home.

To read those books was to understand, even as a child, that achievement is to be valued, and is not something to be set aside. So, how do we talk about our achievers today? Other than in the field of sports, we talk about today’s achievers as “geeks” and “workaholics”. People are advised to lead “balanced lives”. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t led a balanced life. But people who want to accomplish something are not balanced. And they are geeks, and workaholics. I think we owe our country to people who were like that. I don’t know that one could say that folks like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson led balanced lives. Any rational cost/benefit analysis would tell you to stay out of a quarrel with the mother country, and let other people deal with it! Who today would talk about pledging “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to a cause? Today we are uncomfortable with such value discussions, and I think it’s a shame.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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