I thought about how to answer this question for a while, anon. I thought about scratch-resistant glasses, and how their coating was first developed by NASA to protect astronaut helmet visors. I thought about ear thermometers, and how NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab helped adapt the same infrared technology they use to gauge the heat of stars to tell you if your child had a fever. I thought about the 200 communication satellites orbiting the Earth, and how NASA was responsible for the first. I thought about smoke detectors, water filters, LED lights, freeze dried food, solar energy, invisaline braces, safety grooves on the curbs of the highway, memory foam, baby food, the dustbuster…
Space travel, facing unique challenges, comes up with unique solutions. It is a shining example of innovation, of creative problem-solving, and how the ripple effects of such endeavors can benefit society as a whole.
But for me, this utilitarian argument isn’t truly satisfying. If space travel did nothing but took us into space, I would still consider it important, vital, worth doing. And it took a while for me to understand why.
I think my answer, the romantic answer, is “wanderlust.” Because 60,000 years ago, a small population of Homo sapiens crossed the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from Africa into the Arabian Peninsula. Only 10,000 years later, Homo sapiens had reached Southeast Asia and Australia, mostly by island-hopping and hugging coastlines. 15,000 years ago, they braved massive ice shelves to travel across the Asian-Americas land bridge and down into Mesoamerica. Each generation moved a little further into the unknown—the profoundly unknown, untouched by any sort of humanity—and stayed. And the next generation moved a little further than that. Gene maps show that people went back as well as moving forward; that there was sailing and trade much earlier than anyone would ever have thought.
There is something in humanity that looks at a horizon and wants.
And then—well, then we looked up and saw the sky, we looked down and saw the depths of the ocean. Places no human being had ever been, never seen, never really known. But we had no way of going, and so we wrote stories about what was there, because imagination isn’t constrained by physics. (Don’t tell me that Icarus and Captain Nemo aren’t the same person; they typify the same human desire, to reach for something just beyond reach.) I don’t know whether the stories inspired the real-life inventors, or they were simply symptomatic of the same desire—I’m not sure it matters. Because we developed sonar and submarines and scuba diving, and descended to the deepest points of the ocean; we took to the sky on wings of steel.
And then we realized that there was a place beyond sky, that we still hadn’t quite reached the stars. So we built rockets and rovers, and we went. We wandered the surface of the moon, and sent satellites to be out eyes in the very distant corners of space. We could not see beyond our own solar system, and so we built better eyes—to see in every spectra, undreamed-of distances. Through them, we gazed at planets and nebulae and supernovae, we saw the universe without ever leaving our own tiny blue-and-green marble.
We stood in awe of the immensity of the universe, and never questioned that we had a place within it.
I am not trying to argue that space travel is some kind of manifest destiny. Only there are some things we do because we are human. Make art. Fall in love. Hunger for answers. Yearn for horizons. Asking why these things are important can be fruitless, because we do these things for themselves; the reason for art is ultimately art. For me, space exploration is the same, important because it is an expression of our humanity, because we have been wondering wanderers since the origin of our species, and show no signs of stopping.
Because space is there, vast and unknowable, and humanity has always loved a challenge.