Why Do We Go to Space, Anyway?

The past and future of travel beyond Earth

The space program was forged from paranoia and fear. Our first rockets were weapons. Our first moves into the world beyond our own were motivated by competition. But when we finally got ourselves into space -- when we first traveled around our lonely planet, and took our first bounding leaps on the moon -- many of those baser motivations transformed into something more transcendent and profound: Space came to mean something much more than ideology. Space ended up teaching us about life on Earth.

In the video above, part of PBS's "It's Okay to Be Smart" series, the scientist Joe Hanson explains the human value of space travel. "From up there," he says, giving words to the tranquil image of the Blue Marble, "borders and war and violence disappear." And the new kind of vision space affords us, Hanson notes -- its ability to unify the planet via distance from it -- "changed people on Earth. They shared the experience of the moon on their television screens. They decided going to space didn't have to be about fear; it could be about something else."

That "something else"? Inspiration. Achievement. Faith in progress. It's an open question, at the moment, where space travel will lead us, and where we will lead it: Mars? The moon, again? Some space far beyond the reaches of our sun? We don't yet know. What we can be sure of, however, is what Hanson reminds us of: The rockets we send into space will be guided by human dreams.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Video

Just In