I had barely set foot in my NASA office when a senior colleague knocked on the door and handed me his cellphone.
“Who is it?” I whispered as I reached for the phone. “It’s Buzz Aldrin,” he said.
My mind began to race. It was my first day at NASA, why would he want to talk with me?
As soon as I said “hello,” Aldrin jumped into explaining the hazards of the early Apollo program, what the moon’s regolith looks like up close and the reverent, triumphant feeling that overcame him as he walked on the lunar landscape with Earth’s blue sphere suspended in the dark sky above.
It was a brief conversation; one I later found out he did as a favor to my colleague who thought it would help me in my new job.
I was a speechwriter for NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. My primary responsibility was to explain to the nation why spending precious American taxpayer money on space exploration is vital for our future.
But as a Utah born-and-raised skeptic of big government spending, I had reservations.
Is it fiscally responsible to spend billions exploring space when the nation is running historic deficits and is already trillions in debt? Does NASA benefit everyday Americans or is it a luxury of a bygone era?
They’re fair questions. They were my questions.
But over time, I went from NASA skeptic to supporter. And I started making the conservative case for NASA to anyone who would listen.
NASA’s space missions, like Wednesday morning’s launch of the Artemis program’s Space Launch System rocket to the moon, attracts the usual crowd of critics. They argue the money should instead be spent on other more humanitarian-oriented priorities.
But this isn’t an either/or proposition.
The 1960s Apollo program is a perennial example of how investing in the scientific community benefits all of humanity directly and indirectly. The objective was to land on the moon, but to reach that goal engineers and scientists had to tackle problems which have had long-term benefits for society.
This includes remarkable advancements in agriculture, water-filtration, weather prediction and drought remediation. The world has more food and safe drinking water to assist the poor because of NASA’s work then and now. If you care about innovation and maintaining the United States’ economic competitiveness, you should care about NASA.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying government bureaucracy alone made these advancements. NASA simply provides the leadership and initial investment. NASA’s private partners made some of the main advances in technology, and they then expand the application in the market place.
This is a proven pattern of success unmatched by any other country in the world. Most Americans aren’t aware that technology they carry around in their pocket can trace its genesis to a NASA space mission. NASA’s early adoption of integrated circuits on silicon chips helped jump-start the 1960s computer industry. And later, in the 1990s, a NASA engineer invented an imaging processor enabling smaller cameras. The technology was later shared with a phone manufacturer.
NASA likes to joke it helped spur the invention of selfies and the popularity of social media — although on second thought, maybe it should apologize.
The advent of private American space transportation and aerospace manufacturing like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ BlueOrigin broadens the nation’s technological horizons. Their partnerships with NASA are ushering in a new era of scientific discovery. We can do more and go farther together.
This morning as we watched the SLS rocket blast toward the moon, I was reminded that space exploration is a uniting force. Around the world no one says “America” landed on the moon in 1969, they say “we” landed on the moon.
NASA’s work is viewed as a part of human discovery, and as such is a powerful diplomatic tool to reach hearts as well as minds.
These exploration missions symbolize America. “We must remember that America has always been a frontier nation,” President Donald Trump said in his 2020 State of the Union address. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Building the Panama Canal, fighting world wars, landing on the moon and other similar missions galvanized American grit and innovation.
The Artemis program’s goal is ambitious. Living on the moon and taking mankind’s next giant leap to Mars will require new technology and scientific discovery, which will have untold applications for life on Earth.
Each generation has a choice to rest on the accomplishments of the past or to venture to the edge of knowledge and push into the unknown. It’s well worth the roughly one-half of 1% of the annual federal budget currently allocated to NASA to choose the latter.
What Aldrin said to me on my first day at NASA wasn’t any different from what you can read in the agency’s mission reports. But to hear firsthand the courage and pride he had in America’s accomplishments filled me with the same determination that has enabled Americans to put aside differences and accomplish — together — what was once thought impossible.