Science needs more Apollos

How did we allow “vision” and “inspiration” to become dirty words when discussing science? Why are these regarded as fluffy concepts that have no place in the modern world of scientific research? The science journal Nature has carried out an online, international, cross-disciplinary survey of scientists who have published in their journal in the last three years. Of the 800 or so respondents, more than half cite Project Apollo as having directly influenced them to become a scientist. I was stunned. This is Nature-published authors we’re talking about, not contributors to the Liechtenstein Journal of Flying Saucers – they’re supposed to be a more rational breed.

That’s 400-odd scientists, of some standing, who say Apollo was the thing that launched their personal scientific odysseys. And if there are hundreds to be found in that narrow sample then there must be thousands, maybe tens of thousands of others for whom the same is true.

This isn’t the only evidence that human space exploration can draw people towards science. But it is pretty clear that space science, and astronauts in particular, are great at generating precisely the kind of graduate that we are so very short of at this time; the type that we are constantly told is the key to the future stability of our economy. Despite these facts “inspiration” continues to be discounted as a factor when considering the value of a thing. Vision and inspiration, of themselves, have no quantifiable value and, to the metric-obsessed society in which we live, therefore no value at all.

Now, before I get trolled for suggesting that getting people all warm and glowy is the sole justification for the multibillion-dollar Apollo escapades, let me be clear: I do not think that inspiration argument alone justifies human space flight. No single item alone – not the science or the spin-offs or the benefits to education – is enough to make it worth it: it is, as I’ve said before, all of those things together.

Apollo was of its time and the future exploration of space cannot and should not be conducted in the same way; not even that of Mars. The international agencies must co-operate fully while allowing their collective monopoly over all things astronautic to be at least part broken, thus reducing the cost to individual nations and their respective taxpayers.

But whatever the future holds for space exploration, humans will continue to be a part of it. Mission planners and architects of all programmes of scientific exploration would do well to remember what the vital ingredients of such efforts are. Science is at its best when its skies are at their bluest. A successful programme of exploration is one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts; one in which no single element makes sense on its own. It is a thing of culture, an idea so big, so well executed that it stands for all time and makes itself felt, in a positive way, in every corner of our society. Such feats cannot be achieved in the absence of vision or inspiration and we should allow these words to creep back into respectable vocabulary.

Kevin Fong, co-director of the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme environment medicine.