The pinnacle of American exploration came in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. landed on the surface of the moon. This was not only a watershed moment, it also marked the last time America set a truly ambitious goal and achieved it.
The merits of a manned spaceflight to another celestial body and its subsequent return are obvious, but the context highlights another, perhaps even more profound point: the space race took up a substantial portion of the U.S. budget at the height of the Vietnam War.
In 1966 4.41 percent of U.S. spending went to NASA, almost 10 times the percentage of what we spend now, and it came during an immense financial burden. This emphasizes a facet of the American psyche that has been lost: the curiosity of exploration.
Comparing the cultural attitudes of the 1960s with those of today is a discouraging endeavor for many subjects, but focusing on sentiments toward NASA leaves little room for optimism. Today 0.5 percent of U.S. spending goes to NASA. This is a step backwards for our country, and is representative of a pronounced shift in priority from the philosophical importance of actions to an obsession with their financial costs. Dreams have no place in modern-day dreaming.
One unfortunate consequence of this shift is that we are no longer teaching our kids to think creatively, or imagine beautiful outcomes; we are teaching them to put a price tag on everything. Our kids are not the only ones being conditioned to think this way, it is the dominant attitude in both political and social discussions.
Take for example Bill O’Reilly’s recent piece on the current state of U.S. spending. In it he derides the nearly one million dollar budget for research into which foods astronauts will bring with them for their two and a half year journey to the red planet as superfluous. The fact that astronauts who leave Earth for that length of time need food is somehow lost on Bill, but his lack of reasoning is indicative of the ease with which people disregard scientific endeavors as silly.
It is ironic that in a time when we take advantage of space and the technological contributions that stem from its exploration more than ever, NASA is taking up the smallest portion of our budget it has since 1959, the second year the agency existed.
Mars is the next step in exploration. The first landing there will be a grand testament to the fortitude of the human spirit, and it will cost a lot of money. I hope the current trend of bottom-line monomania does not derail it. Commander David Scott said it best as he took his first steps onto the lunar surface: “As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature, Man must explore… and this is exploration at its greatest.”