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Public Opinion About Space Exploration - Is Space Exploration Important To Society?, Should Space Travel Be A National Priority?, Should Space Travel Be A Science Priority?

spent american program people

We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.

—President George W. Bush, January 14, 2004

How will a country at war and in deficit pay for such things?

Harvard Independent Newsmagazine, February 12, 2004

Humans seem to have an inherent desire to surmount great obstacles and push into new frontiers. There have always been brave people willing to risk their lives on bold and dangerous journeys into uncharted territory. They have climbed Mount Everest, traversed wild jungles, crossed barren deserts, and sailed stormy seas. Successful explorers become popular heroes. Their achievements thrill and delight people who do not have the ability, resources, or courage to go themselves.

The U.S. space program taps into this spirit of adventure. Astronauts became the heroic explorers of the twentieth century. They opened new frontiers and set foot on the Moon. These successes were achieved at a high price. They cost the country human lives and billions of dollars that some critics say could have been spent feeding the poor, healing the sick, and housing the homeless. Was it worth it?

Space exploration is appealing on a psychological level. It is awesome, daring, and closely associated with American can-do optimism and patriotic pride. A robust space program also showcases and strengthens U.S. capabilities in science, engineering, and technology. These are powerful motivations to keep venturing out into space.

On the other side lie the staggering problems facing American society—incurable diseases, crime, poverty, pollution, unemployment, and war. These are expensive problems. People concerned with poor social conditions resent the billions spent in outer space. Within the scientific community many respected researchers would rather see scarce funds devoted to Earth-related research than space science. There are promising scientific and medical frontiers on this planet that still need to be explored.

In a democratic society the public gets to weigh the relative costs and benefits of national goals and decide which ones to pursue. Public opinion polls show that most Americans have an uneasy devotion to the nation's space travel agenda. They love the idea, but hate paying the bill. Sometimes they wonder if money spent on space might be better spent here on Earth. It is a debate that has raged since the earliest days of space exploration and probably always will be a prime issue in space science. As succinctly remarked in the film version of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's chronicle of the early days of the American space program: "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

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