The derisive argument against funding space exploration writes itself: People can’t afford their everyday lives, the country is up to its knees in debt, there are so many pressing problems right here on Earth, and we’re spending that kind of money to fire people into the stars?
But we are. And it’s worth it.
There are the straightforward benefits of technology developed for space. Robot-assisted surgical techniques, portable medical equipment and remote health monitoring for isolated communities, heart pumps, water filtration systems, food preservation techniques – all have made our world safer, healthier or easier, and all were derived in some way from space-program research.
And as climate change makes life on Earth increasingly volatile and challenging, insights on the functioning and history of our planet and others can only help light the way.
But there is a more ephemeral, and more important, measure of the value of space exploration. That is the vast value of wonder – the collective awe that makes us marvel together at what seems like magic but is actually tireless work, painstaking planning and breathtaking knowledge.
There is a particular awe that greets an achievement that belongs to no one, and so to everyone. The collective good of that is tricky to quantify, but it’s also difficult to overstate.
On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, The New York Times ran a photo essay of New Yorkers in the summer of 1969, transfixed by Apollo 11 with the involuntary absorption of children, every face swivelled toward black-and-white screens that showed the impossible made real. In an accompanying essay, poet Adrian Matejka wrote, “We looked up, and we would never be in agreement like this again.”
Ours is a world and a moment that sorely needs a reason to look up in astonished unison. We don’t get many shared experiences any more. Our histories, our entertainment, our windows on the world – even the facts of our basic reality – are fragmented into choose-your-own-adventure shards.
We constantly see spectacular things in the digital world that turn out to be fakes. There’s a grifter around every corner trying to pluck our emotions to life and profit from them. We are being taught that awe is for suckers.
But now a new chapter of collective, real wonder has launched with the Artemis program, which will see humans return to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.
In November, 2022, the Artemis I mission sent the unmanned Orion spacecraft successfully around the moon and back. Earlier this month, the crew for Artemis II was announced, and those four astronauts – including a Canadian, mission specialist Jeremy Hansen – will pilot that same spacecraft around the moon and back home next year.
The ultimate goal of Artemis is to establish a base camp on the moon’s surface and launch the Gateway spaceship in lunar orbit, on the path to eventual missions to Mars. It is the stuff of tree house daydreams.
NASA clearly understands the heart-stirring potential of doing something big, as President John F. Kennedy said, “because it is hard.” The tagline for the Artemis program is “We are going,” a phrase both childlike and grandly historical.
This project – the sheer brain-bending audacity of it – could gather what NASA is calling “the Artemis Generation” around their own screens, slack-jawed in unified amazement, just as the Apollo Generation once was.
Nearly every kid goes through a phase of being bowled over by some element of the natural or man-made world. That “Whoa, that exists?!” obsession can be sparked by space, dinosaurs, the pyramids, trains, insects, skyscrapers or any of the other overlooked miracles that children are so good at not overlooking.
Usually, those fascinations get you a few years of kid-friendly reference books, perfect birthday gift ideas and an impressive store of knowledge that never quite leaves you, even long after that single-minded infatuation fades.
But sometimes those childhood fascinations become careers, and those careers lead to innovations and discoveries that make the world better for all of us.
The sarcastic refrain “We can go to the moon, but …” mocks the idea that humans can’t handle some distinctly less impressive task. But that sentiment could be turned on its head: If we can go to the moon – again, and beyond it – what else might we be able to pull off?
You never know where a bit of wonder will take us.