Return to moon a worthy goal

NASA outlined a strategy Monday that would put humans back on the moon as early as 2018, a proposal meant as a first stage to manned space flights exploring our solar system.

One of the first questions that come to mind is, “Why did it take so long?” The last time a human walked on a surface other than our own planet’s was in the early ’70s.

The question that will likely be debated more hotly is, “How are we going to pay for it?” What most forget is that the returns on such a mission in terms of scientific research and technological advances would – fittingly — be astronomically high.

When President John F. Kennedy vowed in May 1961, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” nobody knew for sure if it was even possible. Yet the nation took on what is probably one of humanity’s greatest undertakings ever: exploration of space.

As a reward humans took their first steps on a historically important exploration to the stars, but in the process spawned an entire industry fueled by advances and inventions made in the space program. Computers, plastics and other “space-age” technologies all made considerable advancements during these early space flights, often in ways that had not been foreseen but were always beneficial.

What started as a “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States quickly evolved away from the nationalistic undertones that had caused the initial spark of research. In later years the space program helped bring about cooperation between Soviet Russia and the United States.

Such cooperation continues to this day and made construction of the International Space Station possible. The space station itself is probably the first truly neutral ground on which scientists from all corners of the globe can work side by side. The diplomatic benefit of such projects is priceless in and of itself.

NASA pegs the budget for the missions at around $104 billion. This is a lot of money to spend on anything, but compared to what other projects cost, it’s well worth the investment.

A recently released estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, for example, states the war in Iraq is likely to reach a cost of $600 billion in the next five years — that’s about $5 billion each month.

But maybe the question that should be contemplated is, “Why not go?” Humans now have the technological capabilities to explore the solar system, a mission bound to give us a deeper insight into our own planet’s origins as well as the cosmos as a whole.

It may be tricky to explain to the American public why we should go now, but it is bound to be easier than the task of explaining to future generations why we didn’t go despite having the capabilities to do so.