You don’t succeed as an engineer or survive as a test pilot without being an intensely practical person. Yet the practical Neil Armstrong will forever be remembered for leading one of humanity’s most impractical adventures.
America had no pragmatic reason to go the moon in the 1960s. While the Apollo program spun off many inventions, the moon voyages were not about developing freeze-dried food or cordless tools. They were mainly about sending human beings up to the nearest heavenly body to have a look around.
Curiosity, pure and simple. It seems appropriate that when Armstrong died Saturday, the Martian rover Curiosity – NASA’s latest impractical adventure – had just begun exploring the bleak landscape of Mars.
In 1969, when Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander, robots weren’t supposed to be the stars of the U.S. space program. Decades of science fiction had conditioned the world to expect humans to play the lead role in exploring Mars and deep space.
But after six trips to the moon, the United States lost interest and didn’t go back. That was 40 years ago; since then, our astronauts have been tooling around in near-Earth orbit.
There’s talk about returning astronauts to the moon and ultimately sending them to Mars, but American leaders don’t sound all that enthusiastic. As far as the moon goes, there’s a sense of “been there, done that.”
Still, Mars crawlers aren’t a bad substitute for flesh-and-blood astronauts. One of Curiosity’s predecessors, Opportunity, has been operating since 2003 and remains in business today.
Armstrong and Curiosity have something important in common: Both are agents of basic research, pure science. Basic research is about discovering for the sake of discovering, looking around the universe and asking, “What makes this thing click?”
We do most of our basic research on Earth, most of it in universities. The University of Washington, for example, drew approximately $1.5 billion in research grants last year. Scientists at such institutions plumb the secrets of cell chemistry, the human genome, brain development and countless other realms of undiscovered knowledge.
Ultimately, “impractical” pure research among the most practical things we do. Useful technologies – electric lights, lasers, computers, airplanes – are nearly always based on principles someone happened upon out of pure curiosity.
The value of basic research can be a hard sell to the lawmakers who fund universities, but science will always return rich dividends to the societies that support it.
In the meantime, there’s the thrill of prying out the mysteries of the human body, the Earth, the atom, the cosmos. The thrill is part of what we are, and it’s reason enough to keep at it.