In light of the touchdown of the Mars Rover, Curiosity, day to day conversations have inevitably run amuck with accusations that the Mars Science Laboratory Mission is a waste of money and time. These accusations sometimes inseminate into a discussion where a resentment of NASA in general starts to show.
There are many claims one can make when justifying why NASA should receive more funding, not less. From non-stick frying pans to GPS, it’s not hard to think of ways in which funding NASA has greatly improved our quality of life and well being. But there is another, less capitalized upon justification for why we should give NASA, or rather, science in general, more funding.
For those who don’t know, the above image is the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. A very long shutter speed was used to take a picture of what would be nothing more than a pencil’s eraser size portion of the night sky via the Hubble Space Telescope. And when all was said and done, this image came out. For many (myself included), this is one of the most poetic images I know of, and not simply because of the sheer aesthetic beauty it possesses.
No, it’s much deeper than that. With virtually ever bright dot in this image being the faint resonance of a remarkably distant galaxy, each comparable to our own Milky Way, the mind is inevitably struck with wonder and mystery. And when an effort is made to comprehend the vastness of the universe, the mind hits an opaque wall. For just within this image alone, you have ten thousand galaxies, each with billions or trillions of stars, most with their very own set of planets. And when one is reminded of this fact of life, as indeed what happens when you gaze into the HUDF, you must confront the fact of your relatively (on a cosmic scale) insignificant existence. If nothing more, this image is a lesson in humility.
But to me, this image is even more than just a reminder of my insignificance. It also represents some of the most important questions our species holds so dear. I’m talking of course, about questions of origin.
Questions of origin have always plagued our species’ pursuit of knowledge, and rightfully so. And we’ve adopted various strategies to answer these questions, though unfortunately, some strategies have been worse than others. Regardless, questions about the origins of life and the origins of our universe have always best been examined through careful observation, even if some people resent empirical analysis.
But what is so elegant about the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, at least to me, is that it makes one reconsider their origins. The phenomenon of life is likely not an isolated incident, and if we could explore each solar system one becomes aware of just by looking at the HUDF, well, I suspect you’d learn a lot about the phenomenon of life, and indeed, more light would be shed on the mystery of our own biological origins.
Even our own views of the universe are quickly put into perspective. To think, many of the galaxies present in the HUDF are snapshots of history, long evolved into differently structured galaxies. And far into the future, many of these galaxies will become invisible to us, pushed beyond the boundaries of detection by the repulsive force of dark energy. The HUDF is a reminder that we have an understanding of the origins and evolution of our universe thanks entirely to investments made in science.
I have yet to meet a mature human being who thinks these questions, the questions of origins, are a waste of time, and I suspect if I ever do find one who holds such a stance, I’m almost certain they will be lying. And these are the questions and mysteries that NASA and the entire scientific enterprise have been painstakingly shedding light upon.
If we are to take seriously the questions surrounding the origins of our own species and the phenomenon of life at all, we must be willing to investigate wherever answers may turn up. And this means supporting and funding organizations like NASA, where missions like the Mars Science Laboratory seek to find answers.