Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin has published an op-ed in the Washington Post that serves as a response to the one by David Von Drehle that attacks the very idea of human space exploration. Hewson mounts a defense of why Americans should send people to explore the heavens. None of what she said includes anything quite as crass as “because NASA wants us to spend a lot of money to do so” even though big aerospace is pretty much in favor of anything the agency that writes the checks is for.

She demolishes the robots vs. humans argument reasonably effectively, even though that one has become fish in a barrel.

Hewson’s argument falls where it comes to the objective reasons for sending people to the moon and Mars. It is not that any of her points are invalid. They are just incomplete.

Inspiring youth and achieving great things

Hewson’s argument for space exploration boils down to two reasons. Sending people beyond low Earth orbit will inspire youth, which frankly is in great need of inspiration at this point. Achieving great things is an inherent virtue. Both arguments are excellent, but they do not go far enough. The achieving great things position leaves one vulnerable to critics who will say, why not do that by curing cancer, solving global warming (providing that it is something that needs addressing) or curing poverty instead of exploring space?

The criticism will be flawed because it will assume that a binary solution set exists in which we either explore space or do whatever. Civilization is perfectly capable of attacking several problems at once.

The real reason to explore space

In fact, three reasons, all very sound, exists to explore space. First, doing good science is an inherent virtue.

Delving into the geophysical processes that formed the moon or climate on Mars will lead to all sorts of unexpected and useful insights. Second, Deep Space Exploration, correctly done, will provide opportunities for the commercial sector to bring the moon, asteroids, and ultimately Mars into the Earth’s economic sphere of influence.

Moon and asteroid mining, space tourism, and even Mars colonies will enhance economic growth and job creation.

Finally, deep space exploration will buttress American leadership in space and thus on Earth. Leaving aside the question as to whether the United States has lost said leadership or not, the fact remains that the country is not doing everything it could be doing to maintain it. It would only take a singular event, such as a Chinese crewed moon landing, to cast America’s role in doubt. The country that leads in space will be the one that most matters on Earth and will garner the most respect.