Why we explore space

Through the one large window in my congressional office, I have a clear view of the Capitol. It symbolizes, to me, the freest, most exceptional and greatest country on Earth.

This month, we celebrate the 45th anniversary of America’s moon landing.  When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those historic steps, every American stood a little higher, pointed to the moon, and knew that it was within our grasp.  In that moment, we reaffirmed that we are still a nation built by pioneers.

{mosads}On a wall of my office, I look at a poster-sized photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It inspires me to look beyond Earth, to consider my place in the universe, and to think about infinite possibilities.

The photo is of a dark speck of sky, pinpoint in size, where nothing was thought to exist. When the film was developed after being exposed for many hours, it revealed there were 3,000 points of light in that tiny area of the sky. And each point of light was not a star, but a galaxy, which average about 100 billion stars.

A poet once wrote that a person’s reach should exceed their grasp. By that, I believe he meant that we should try for worthy goals, even if we don’t always achieve them.  At a fundamental level, space exploration — the mission of NASA — is about inspiration. This inspiration fuels our desire to push the boundaries of the possible and reach beyond our own pale blue dot.

The first human footsteps on the moon are now a distant memory.  And America’s ability to return to the moon, Mars or other worthy destinations is slipping.

When the president canceled the Constellation program in 2010, our chance to explore beyond low-Earth orbit was significantly delayed. To the dismay of the American people, the administration made it clear that human space exploration was not a priority.

These setbacks have fueled a sense that America is falling behind, with our best days behind us. Today, America’s finest spaceships and largest rockets are found in museums rather than on launch pads. The administration’s continued focus on costly distractions is harmful to our space program.  The Obama administration continues to advocate increasing climate change funding at NASA at the expense of other priorities such as space exploration. There are 18 federal agencies that fund climate change research, but only one does space exploration.

There are also those who ridicule space exploration. Waste of time. Little green men. Not a priority. They remind me of that definition of a cynic — someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We should not let them discourage us.

Expanding our knowledge, challenging our limited views of the world and discovering new subjects will lead us to look beyond our lives. It will result in more interest in math, physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy. It will generate innovation. It will spur our imagination. It will enrich our lives. We will look up, not down.

Space exploration involves serious scientists studying serious subjects. Astronomy and astrobiology have become respected fields of inquiry at our universities, national laboratories and research institutes. And the American people have an innate curiosity about space. The Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is the most popular museum in the country.

The future of America’s exploration efforts lead to Mars. Just as the first steps on the moon were by Americans, the first flag to fly on another planet in our solar system should be that of the United States.

Great nations do great things. President Kennedy’s call to America wasn’t just about reaching the moon, it was a reminder that we are an exceptional nation. We must rekindle within NASA the fire that blazed the trail to the moon.


Smith has represented Texas’s 21st Congressional District since 1987.  He is chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

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