In 1970, Sister Mary Jacunda, a nun from Zambia, wrote to Dr. Ersnt Stuhlinger, the associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. In her letter, Sister Jacunda asked Stuhlinger how he could squander billions of dollars on a piloted mission to Mars when so many children were starving on Earth.
I have often pondered this question myself and Stuhlinger’s thoughtful response impressed me. In it, Stuhlinger quoted the story of a German count who lived 400 years ago. This count was popular among his subjects since he donated a large portion of his income to the poor. One day, the count met a man, who during his meagre free time, had established a laboratory in his house. This man ground small lenses from pieces of glass, mounted them on tubes and used them to look at very small objects. The count was fascinated by the tiny creatures he could see through the apparatus. The count invited the man to move his laboratory to the count’s estate and paid him to work full time on his research projects.
The townspeople, on hearing this, became angry. They accused the count of wasting his money on a man and his useless hobby even as they were reeling from a plague. The count remained firm. He mentioned that he would continue to donate to the townspeople, and would also support the man’s strange occupation because he was confident that something will come out of it someday.
You can possibly guess where this leads. The man’s work eventually led to the development of the microscope, which has served as an invaluable instrument in our fight against diseases.
Devoting all our time and resources towards solving pressing problems leaves us no room for pursuing knowledge for its own sake. However, this approach is short-sighted, because a small group of folks who are free to better understand our world (and other worlds) have the potential to eliminate timeless crises we have suffering from.
Most of our time and attention should go towards solving the problems of yesterday and today. With the small fraction that remains, let us shoot for Mars!
Inspiration: Why Explore Space?