I've been scrolling through the recent updates on Letters of Note, and I came across this one, from 1970. It's written by Ernst Stuhlinger, who was at the time the Associate Director for Science at NASA, and responds to a question, from a nun in Zambia. She asked why we spend billions on space travel when there are children starving on Earth. In his response, he explores through a number of anecdotes the incredible ways in which seemingly useless scientific pursuits can have incredible positive effects for the world. He talks about the interconnectedness of different areas of human life, the things science has done to help people in the past, and the ways that the space program had already helped people in tangible ways around the world.
But my favorite part is this:
Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.
How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.
I love that bit. I love thinking of science as not just a means to various ends, but as the end unto itself, driving countries to compete against each other in a civil, mutually beneficial way, creating a necessity that can breed creation without requiring that we kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
Also: knowing it was written in the 70's, by a NASA scientist in the space race, it was fun to read it in that black-and-white TV announcer tone of voice that's in all the historical videos about American history.