Brain Pickings

Why Invest in Space Exploration? Isaac Asimov’s Witty 1969 Letter

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“The people of the United States spend exactly as much money on booze alone as on the space program.”

The quest to understand our place in the cosmos has long mesmerized humanity. Dreams of space travel captivated our collective imagination long before the Space Race materialized as a reality. Indeed, this very spirit of exploration and curiosity has been, as Brian Cox elegantly put it, “the rocket fuel that powers our civilization.” Ray Bradbury saw in it the key to the immortality of the human race and without it, Carl Sagan would’ve never inspired and humbled generations with his iconic love letter to the cosmos. After all, what better and more tangible reminder that we are all stardust than direct immersion in the cosmos? And yet, space exploration has been shoved down a sinking spiral in the hierarchy of executive priorities — one of our era’s most tragic failures of political imagination.

The Carina Nebula (public domain image courtesy of NASA)

From Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters (public library), which also gave us Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, comes the beloved author’s succinct reality check, a timelier-than-ever rebuttal of half-baked arguments debating the value of space exploration — something that must be restated again and again with ever-greater urgency and passion.

In a letter to a friend dated July 23, 1969 — just three days after the “giant leap for mankind” that was the historic Apollo 11 moon landing — Asimov writes with his signature blend of wry humor, irreverence, and unflinching conviction:

I got a letter from a reader who wrote to berate me on the expense of the space program and telling me I ought to be ashamed for not spending the money on the cities and the poor.

I wrote back to say that the people of the United States spend exactly as much money[*] on booze alone as on the space program. And if you add tobacco, drugs, cosmetics, and worthless patent medicines (and chewing gum, suggests Carl Sagan), then we spend far more on these useless-to-harmful substances than on space exploration.

I asked her if she indulged in any of these vices and if she would consider sponsoring a movement to have the people give up these things and donate the money equivalent to the cities. (Of course, this would throw a hell of a lot of people out of work, which shows how difficult it is to do anything.

* Asimov was inadvertently softening the situation — if he knew the real numbers, which have changed little since his day, he would’ve been even more appalled: Americans spent $50 billion a year on alcohol, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while NASA’s entire annual budget is $18 billion.

Fourteen years later, Asimov reiterated his conviction in this delightful interview for Muppet Magazine.

Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters remains a treasure trove of wisdom and wit in its entirety. Complement this particular bit with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent testimony before Senate on the value of space exploration — possibly the most poetic and profound speech on science ever delivered before the revered legislative chamber, then revisit Asimov, Sagan, and Bradbury’s legendary 1971 conversation on Mars and the mind of man.

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