Why Space Exploration is Important to the United States

A version of this essay was first presented at the National Society of Black Engineer's Annual Conference luncheon in Pittsburgh, PA this past April.

One of the hardest questions that is often asked of us rocket scientists is "why is space exploration important?" Even JFK tried to answer this question many years ago. He said, "But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why...fly (across) the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?"

Well, we may never have a good answer for why Rice plays Texas.

What kind of space program should we foster and what to do next with it remains a recurring question. One could argue that this is because we in the aerospace community have yet to articulate a satisfying answer. We talk about the survival of our species, about being made of the stuff of stars, about the romance of exploration. And we talk about spin-offs.

Yet I don't think the answer revolves around Teflon, Velcro, and Tang.

It is a fact that the general public overwhelmingly supports the space program. Excitement was initially generated by daring feats of heroism undertaken by the astronauts. We have since added to that support with the awe-inspiring pictures returned by the "right-stuff robots:" the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. Everyone believes that space exploration is a good thing, even if we can't fully explain why. Americans are incredibly forward leaning when it comes to funding journeys of discovery and we are mostly happy with the results.

Historically, it has been the role of the federal government, when confronted with promising frontier territory, to take a leading role in the development of the infrastructure facilitating expansion into that territory. Whether it was the establishment of an outpost at Ft. Dodge, the construction of navaids across the country to support Air Mail service, or the interstate highway system, Uncle Sam was there to pave the way. Of course, much of that infrastructure also helped to establish the mechanisms for stimulating local economies. Without modern transportation systems, governance and economic opportunities would have expanded much more slowly across our great land.

Clearly, some kind of infrastructure will also be required to expand into the space frontier and to accrue any benefits it may have to offer. Where exactly are the suspected profits to be had from space? Sure, we have profitable communications satellites pushing television signals to cell phones in some parts of the world. While commercial and market-driven, space tourism is more exploitation than commerce, in the general sense of the word. The answer to the profits question is that we just don't know yet. Following the development of an infrastructure to access the frontier, discoveries will be made. Commerce comes after discovery.

And then what will happen after we make those inevitable discoveries? Analogy may help us here. What has become of those early frontiers opened by Columbus and fellow explorers like Lewis and Clark? Look around! Most of our country's over-the-horizon frontiers are now covered with parking lots.

That's right, parking lots.

Shopping mall parking lots.

Filled with cars. Cars driven by real people, with real jobs, paying taxes for the parks that our kids play in, paying for our national security, and fixing the damage caused by Rita and Katrina.

So after we have the infrastructure to reliably get off the planet, we will make those inevitable discoveries on the moon. And those discoveries will be closely followed by opportunities for commerce. And more parking lots.

And maybe a pub or two.

In the old west, the hub of activity in frontier towns really was the saloon. Tomorrow, the lowly pub may once again help foster a burgeoning economy in some far away places. Imagine you're one of those future explorers or perhaps a space tourist coming into Lembeck's Pub on the moon. You put your five "lunars" on the bar and I'll pour you one of the finest Tang Mimosas this side of the Pleiades. Eventually, I'll need to clean my bar. I'll take two of those lunars down to the Sea of Tranquility Grocery to buy some paper towels. The kid stocking the shelves there will take one of those lunars and go see Jennifer Aniston's daughter in a movie at the theater next door. You get the idea. The moon becomes a place to send goods from earth. A trading post. An economy will be built. And wherever trade occurs among dissimilar cultures, security is enhanced.

We can begin to tie together the existence of infrastructure to discovery, to commerce, to tourism, and maybe even to national security. All with one big bow.

Look up. We recently celebrated five years of continuous presence in low earth orbit on the International Space Station. Our former enemies are now our friends and, indeed, room mates on ISS. We continue to plan a build-out of the international components of the space station in order to meet our international partner commitments. We have already dismantled some of the missiles pointed at each other. Rival has become comrade.

And a couple of tourists have already shown up.

Now look east. Have the Chinese learned from their history of looking inward, wrapping their borders with the Great Wall? Are they now looking outward to reproduce the successes we have enjoyed over the past 200 years? In the 1400's, they owned the resources to explore globally but chose to use their fleets to protect their borders, not sail past them. Are we now going to turn our backs and let them take the mantle we have carried proudly for the past 40 years?

Our first exploratory steps into the New World, the Wild West, and indeed 62 miles up were motivated by security concerns, an expression of national pride, and a desire to profit from developing markets. Exploration and discovery almost always lead the transformation of seemingly uninhabitable places into engines of enterprise, commerce, and sustainable growth. When the President gave us the Vision for Space Exploration, his stated fundamental goal was to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program. When we go to the moon, and visit Lembeck's Pub and celebrate our latest discoveries, we reduce tensions with our neighbors, and we generate new resources in the form of capital required to tackle the pressing issues back home.

So maybe space exploration is important because of Teflon, Velcro, and Tang after all. But not because they are rightly or wrongly identified as spin-offs from the space program. Tomorrow, new Teflons, Velcros, and Tangs will follow along with the other new discoveries enabled by NASA's transportation infrastructure. And they will ultimately be important because we can sell them.

And protect our country with them.

Michael F. Lembeck is the Director for Northrop Grumman's Space Exploration Systems Houston Operations. Lembeck joined Northrop Grumman after serving as the Requirements Division Director for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters and participated in the development of the nation's Vision for Space Exploration.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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