Space Exploration: Is It Worth It?
Wed, 11/14/2012
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz


NASA just embarked upon its most ambitious Mars mission to date, spending a whopping $2.5 billion on this 1-ton rover, hoping to find some evidence as to whether or not Mars once supported life.

At the same time, a United Nations report noted that there were 870 million undernourished people in the world (defined as “a state of energy deprivation” for more than a year). Even if all food production and distribution goals are met, 12.5 percent of the world will be undernourished in 2015. On a planet that also has more than a billion people living in destitute poverty, can we justify spending so much on another one?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Moral Dilemma of the Space Age) said it well:

I challenge the high value placed on the search for extraterrestrial life only because it is being made at the expense of life and humanity here on earth. …Is the discovery of some form of life on Mars or Venus or man’s conquest of the moon really as important to humanity as the conquest of poverty, disease, prejudice, and superstition? Of what value will it be to land a few men on the wilderness of the moon if we neglect the needs of millions of men on earth? The conflict we face is between the exploration of space and the more basic needs of the human race. In their contributions to its resolution, religious leaders and teachers have an obligation to challenge the dominance of science over human affairs. They must defy the establishment of science as G-d. It is an instrument of G-d which we must not permit to be misused.

Proponents of the space program and NASA’s current $17.7 billion budget (and $300 billion collectively spent by all countries) point to technological advances that have come about or accelerated as a result of the space program:

• Satellite television and the mobile telephone
• Global positioning system (GPS) technology
• Virtual reality devices
• Extremely accurate maps
• Advances in digital imaging that have improved screening methods of existing technology (e.g., improved MRI, CT scans, and breast cancer screening)

There are also elements that cannot be quantified, such as the use of the photograph of Earth taken from space that was used to promote environmentalism, or the effect of the space program in promoting science in schools. As astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson stated: “You don't have to set up a program to convince people that being an engineer is cool. They'll know it just by the cultural presence of those activities. You do that, and it'll jump-start our dreams." There are a lot of benefits to space travel and galaxy exploration.

Currently, NASA has about 100 space programs ranging from examining the Earth’s atmosphere, measuring the planet’s water cycle, and tracking hurricanes and storms, to exploring asteroids and planets. Many scientists consider these ongoing programs to be vital to the advance of science and understanding our planet and the universe.

On the other hand, the American space program grew out of the Cold War anxiety over the Soviet Union’s success in launching the Sputnik satellite, and much of this program has had military intentions. Nor should it be forgotten that the United States used former Nazi scientists who had developed the dreaded V2 rocket (some of whom worked in facilities that starved their slave laborers). While the program had a spectacular success in landing a man on the moon in 1969, it also led to the creation of weapons like the inter-continental ballistic missile and multiple independent reentry vehicle. These “advances” enabled a single missile to carry up to 10 nuclear warheads thousands of miles, creating the potential for annihilating all human life on Earth. Thus, the space program has had mixed results.

Many believe that we are searching for extra-terrestrial life. This reality is not impossible according to Jewish thought. There is a Jewish theological basis to accept that there are other worlds in existence. “‘There was evening and there was morning, the first day’ (Bereshit 1:5): From here (we learn that) the Holy One, Blessed is He, created worlds and destroyed them, until G-d created these. G-d said: These give me pleasure, but those did not give me pleasure” (Bereshit Rabbah 3:7).

Rav Saadia Gaon taught that we live in a centripetal Platonic notion of the universe, where everything moves toward the center (toward the human). This is an anthropocentric approach (i.e., that humans occupy the central position of existence, and that everything should be interpreted for its effect on humans). The Rambam, however, taught that we live in a centrifugal universe of Aristotelian values. The Rambam rejects anthropocentricism with the teleological position that G-d creates everything for its own purpose (Mishlei 16:4, “l’maanehu”—for the sake of G-d as opposed to for the sake of man), and thus the universe is centrifugal (everything moving away from the center), and the value of all increases as it goes outwards from man, Earth, into the “active intellect,” and beyond.

The science of both thinkers is known to be incorrect today, but there is still philosophical value to their approaches. In our own time an important Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Norman Lamm, followed in the school of the Rambam and wrote: “There is no need to exaggerate man’s importance, and to exercise a kind of racial or global arrogance, in order to discover the sources of man’s significance and uniqueness.”

Although “there is no need to exaggerate man’s importance” and there is a lot of value in expanding our knowledge of the universe around us both for knowledge’s sake and for the forward march of technology that advances the cause of human sustainability, on balance it is clear that the noble goal of reaching out into the cosmos must play second fiddle to the nobler goal of continued life on the only planet we call home. We must be invested in science and discovery and long-term growth but we must also remember that our main priorities are addressing the human needs of today in this world.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"


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Seriously. I agree with the previous respondent. You pick on NASA as taking from the mouths of the hungry. Tax religious entities and the government could feed them all.

Do listen to Dr Neil de Gras Tyson (astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, NYC) on this point .
Our space budget is half penny of our total tax dollar, but enables our scientific progress in myriad directions- not to mention saving our species when our sun supernovas

I think a much more appropriate comment by a rabbi of an affluent synagogue would be to discourage the lavish simchas that take place, often way over the top, and to encourage instead that this money be used to attend to social needs.
In our community the average family spends at least 30k on a bar mitzva celebration. We have at least 20 such simchas a year. That is 600k being spent on parties that, as we all know, by the end of the bar mitzva year seem boring and repetitive. When my eldest was preparing to become a Bar Mitzva I tied to suggest that each family donate 30k to a not for profit corporation with the benei mitzva deciding how to best use this money to address Jewish concerns and to use 10 percent of this money for a single joint party for all. Sadly, this idea got no traction in the community and the rabbi did nothing to endorse it, most likely recognizing that advocating such an idea could cost him dearly.
It is very easy to pick on Nasa. I would be more impressed if the Rabbi challenged his own flock to look at how they could be more sensitive to addressing these needs. And I don't mean giving 2 percent of a simcha to Mazon or the like but something far more substantial. If he did that I would find this attack on exploration to perhaps have more force.
When King Solomon built the First Temple does the Rabbi think there was no poverty in Judea? Was that also a mistake? The true benefit to space exploration is that empowers us to test our limits and to exceed our own expectations. There is spiritual value therein that should not be disregarded.

You assume it is one or the other -- what makes you think that THIS money would be used as you suggest?? You should argue to help all, but realize that every expenditure should be stopped and replaced. Why not attack all spending? Why pay for medical research when people don't have food? why spend on a computer? why spend on entertainment, sports, etc. And what about wasted food? And all money wasted when trying to distribute food and necessities? Better to suggest simple steps that people can do to help solve problems...

A simple question: why pick the budget of NASA, a mere, almost undetectable part of the US budget (less than 0.5%), instead of, say, the immensely higher defense and military spending? How do guns and fighting wars benefit humanity more than doing science? (And no, pointing fingers to other countries don't evade the question.)

1. The planet Earth is abused and over-populated. Spending money on anything but measures to reduce the population is madness.
2. One asteroid will trigger a mass extinction event, of which there have been many. If we truly care about the human race we need to relocate some of us off this planet Earth without delay. Now. Any spare money should be spent on spaceships capable of carrying humans, on terraforming other planets (Mars, Moon, Venus) and on interstellar space transportation (generation space ships, near light speed travel, faster than light speed travel).

Why is this so difficult to grasp? putting a bandaid on the symptoms of over population is not a kindness in the long run, it makes the problem worse. What's needed is a serious plan to expand from the all-eggs-in-one-basket horrific situation that we are currently in. Please, stop the do-gooders and put your serious thinking heads on and realize that our main priorities are NOT to sustain all the eggs in one basket.

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