Now and then, often while we’re preoccupied with some screen or other, something particularly interesting happens in the sky. A very bright star appears, as if it’s suddenly popped through the inky background, and flies across the heavens. It winks out as abruptly as it appeared. It’s startling the first time you see it.
The star is, of course, no star, but the International Space Station, hurtling silently above as it rounds the world every 90 minutes. Get out binoculars, and you might just make out its solar panels. It’s a weird brand of frisson when you remember images of floating astronauts aboard this awkward-looking craft and realize that there, right there above you, is the real, actual space station. I’d give most anything to see the view from up there.
When other people get excited about the Red Sox, say, or the Superbowl, I’ve got nothing. Even though I once played football, I can’t muster up any way to care about a bunch of overpaid men vying for temporary supremacy, no matter how well they can throw or catch something.
But space? It’s hard to understand why it leaves others as stone-cold as Deflategate leaves me. When recently the first-ever high-res images of Pluto came beaming back from as far afield as we’ve ever managed a close-up, the first viewers in the NASA press room gasped. After the initial photos of the heart-emblazoned world came shots of a mountain range that humans probably won’t step foot on for several lifetimes. There was a spirit in the air for a few days that revealed something intriguing: our hunger for knowing things just because we can is still around. Maybe, despite our necessary preoccupations with the immediate, we can’t help but yearn to look ever farther into the unknown.
But get too high-flown about the cold reaches of the sky, and an argument that makes me want to knock my head against a meteorite quickly arrives: Why should we fund space research when there are hungry people on Earth?
Stop it with that kumbaya chorus, people.
On its face, it’s a fair point. And if those were our only two choices, I might reluctantly concede it. But it’s an irritating false dichotomy: NASA’s money is hardly the only money that might be freed up for solving such big problems as hunger. We don’t have to choose between reaching Pluto or eradicating human suffering.
Add up the 13-year cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report, you get $1.5 trillion. And that doesn’t factor in non-negotiable long-term future costs like care of veterans beyond the war years. If, like a fair number of folks, you approved of the war in Afghanistan but not the controversial one in Iraq, remove the Afghanistan cost. You still get $815 billion. That’s an average of $62.7 billion per year from 2001 until 2014.
That’ll buy a lot of rockets: NASA’s budget for 2015 is $18 billion.
Even in the Apollo moon mission years, the agency’s budget didn’t match the cost of war in Iraq. We can spare some billions for exploration of the universe in which we live. Particularly if we keep the fighting to a minimum. And, lest one false dichotomy replace another, that’s hardly the only other source of funds we might re-allocate to combat hunger should we really try.
Space matters. After all, we live there. We live on one planet of probably billions of planets, and we’re moving thousands of miles per hour around an unremarkable star. Just because we call it “the” sun, and this rocky place in space “Earth” doesn’t make either special in a larger context. To think otherwise is to navel-gaze: yes, we humans are here, and that’s cool. Maybe special, maybe not. This unfathomably large universe full of nebulae and stars is all we’ve got. We’re soaking in it every day — we breathe air gravity keeps close to our outpost in space. What lies beyond our thin blanket of air it is just as real, and just as important.
When I aim my telescope at a star, I wonder what’s there. Is there someone/something looking back? The odds are better than good that’s true somewhere, even though the distances involved may mean we won’t ever make contact. I can’t help but think: What if someone pre-Columbus had a scope powerful enough to look over the Atlantic and see our shores? What if she couldn’t find a way to get there, even though she saw the unknown destination waiting? I’m sure there were plenty of folks who’d laugh and tell her to get real, maybe settle in for an evening of music and wine and stop worrying about whatever’s over there.
If images from space feel far removed, unimportant, give that space station bit a try. It’s as easy as visiting spotthestation.nasa.gov, finding the right time, and looking up as it carves a manmade path into the unknown.•
James Heflin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.