Ad Astra Per Aspera

by Questing Beast

by Tim Cantu

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon… (interrupted by applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

This vision of President Kennedy’s, first stated publicly on May 25, 1961, was fulfilled less than 7 years later when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, along with 400,000 other NASA employees and civilian contractors, successfully completed the Apollo 11 mission and returned safely to earth. Over the next three and a half years 12 men walked on the moon in 6 successful missions. The total cost of the Apollo program has been estimated at about $170 billion in 2005 dollars, and did not include Apollo 18 through 20, which were cancelled in order to create funding for the development of the Space Shuttle and other NASA programs. All of this to land on the moon 6 times with a degree of technology which is eclipsed many times over in any cell phone produced in the last 3 years.

Of course, these 12 men remain the only humans ever to set foot on another celestial body. Vague noises were made by the Bush administration about traveling to Mars and returning to the Moon, but more recently economic troubles have precluded any sort of governmental support for space exploration, and the recent retirement of the Space Shuttle means that for the first time in 50 years the United States does not presently have the capacity to put humans into space. Now, as then, critics claim that the high cost of celestial travel outweighs the tangible benefits gained, and that the money spent on a program like Apollo, no matter what planet it is directed at, is better spent on domestic programs or not spent at all.

However high a value we might place on human spaceflight, the fact remains that its critics have a point: it is vastly more expensive than many of the great scientific endeavors of years past. The Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flier cost less than $1000 ($24,000 in 2010 dollars) and was financed entirely by two men who made and sold bicycles. The high cost of the Apollo program would almost certainly be met by a NASA program to return to the moon – NASA’s since discontinued preliminary steps to return to the moon were part of a program estimated at $35 billion, and like all government programs it would probably cost more.

So why should we make an effort? Shortly after the Apollo 11 landing the Senate held hearings to determine whether the Federal government should spend $250 million on particle physics equipment. One of the physicists, Robert Wilson, when interrogated as to whether this funding would add to the security of the country, countered that

It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture . . . It has to do with, are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about . . . It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

All of those involved in the Apollo project understood this. President Nixon’s prepared remarks should the Eagle lunar lander have failed to return reflected the same sentiments:

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding . . . In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

In fact, taking the next step of exploration by traversing the planets is in some way the Catholic thing to do. If the Church were not to build extravagant cathedrals she would have more money to feed the poor, to minister in prisons, to conduct missionary work. But the Church has always recognized that money spent on churches and the like serves another purpose of no less importance, even if it is not immediately apparent in this world: giving glory to God. Similarly, there may be other, more visible things we can do with the money for a space program; but the fact that the benefits are more tangible does not mean that those goals are more worthy.

Our society today fears the cost and risk of interplanetary travel. We are one of the first to do so in human history. If our society is to be great, if it is to be worth defending, if it is to lead the world in the search for truth, we must relinquish the status quo and the cowardice which leads us to cling to it, and embrace the courage and intrepid spirit of the 400,000 men and women who worked together to send us to the moon. It will cost money; it will be dangerous; and it will not provide anything tangible to us as citizens. But it will make our Country and way of life worth defending; it will lead us to a new understanding of Creation.