Here is the full transcript of Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Galactic, Will Pomerantz’s TEDx Talk titled “Why We Go: Leaving Our Beautiful Home and Exploring Outer Space” at TEDxPCC event.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
William J. Pomerantz – Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Galactic
Those of us who are passionate about exploring outer space tend to spend a lot of our time focused on the future. But just like people in every other profession with every other passion, we’re well served by remembering the lessons of history. And lately, there’s been one moment in history that’s really been bouncing around my brain quite a bit, and I’m not referring to that one from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. I’m referring to something a little bit closer to home.
It is September, 1962. President John F. Kennedy is addressing America to tell them what he’d already told Congress a few months earlier, which is that he believed we should dedicate ourselves as a nation to the goal of sending human beings to the moon and bringing them back safely before the decade of the 1960’s had ended.
Now if you remember a line from this speech, it almost certainly goes like this, and I’m not going to do the accent because my JFK really sounds more like Mayor Qiumby, but you have to imagine. He says, “We choose to go to the moon and do these other things in this decade not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
Now I wasn’t in the audience that day, I wasn’t alive on that day. I like to think if I had been there and he’d said, “We go to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard,” I would have said, “Really, you want us to spend a decade and a hundred billion dollars doing something just because it’s hard? That’s the best explanation you can give?” Our most charismatic and eloquent president, that’s the explanation he came up with?
But who am I to complain because 2500 days later a half a billion of us were watching live as Neil and Buzz took those famous small steps and that giant leap. It actually worked. A president had told us to go somewhere by a certain deadline, and we believed him and because we believed him, we did it.
But I’ll mention also, you know, along the way, we showed the real reason why President Kennedy and why Congress wanted us to go. It was not because it was hard, it was because by leaving boot prints and flags, we could show the bad guys that our rockets were bigger than theirs.
But by the time the final Apollo crew left the service of the moon in December of 1972, a decade after JFK gave that famous speech — I’ll note, by the way, only on the final mission did we actually take a scientist — by the time we left, we had spent the equivalent of a $135 billion with a B, billion dollars in today’s money on these missions. $135 billion, to me that number is overwhelmingly large.
In fact, I’m so overwhelmed that I cannot put that number into context. I don’t exactly walk around with $135 billion in my wallet. I don’t know what else you could do with that money. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say, was it worth it unless you can compare it to something else.
So doing my homework in finding some other things that we were spending money on at the same time, or that we spend money on now, when I can make that comparison, that $135 billion starts to look quite different. If you ask me which was more valuable to the nation and to our species, going to the moon or a year in Vietnam? That answer to me is fairly clear. I’m among the camp that thinks the Apollo program is the greatest thing we, as a species, have ever done.
So, it’s pretty easy; but nevertheless, it’s important to ask this question, “Was it worth it?” You know, from Yuri Gagarin in April of 1961 until today, 542 human beings have been in outer space. And I can guarantee you that everyone of those 542, plus all of the hard working men and women who have helped put them up there, all the people who work on the great robots like Mars Curiosity, like the Hubble Space Telescope, every single one of us has been asked at some point by a friend, or by a loved one why.
Why is it worth it? Why do we go to outer space? Why is it worth spending even one dollar? We live in a world so full of social injustice, of problems, of poverty, and disease. Why is it worth spending even one dollar up there, when there are still so many problems down here? People ask me that question all the time, and I find something a little weird about it. It’s not weird that they ask me the question, it’s a really good question. We need to ask that question and we need to have a good answer to that question.
The weird thing to me is that when people ask me that question, maybe it’s because of the cultural memories of JFK in that famous speech, they expect me to be able to answer that question in a sound bite, or actually now in a tweet. And they expect if they ask any person working in the space industry that we will all give the same answer. And if we can’t express that answer in an elevator speech, it means we lack conviction in our beliefs.
Now I’d like you to participate in a thought experiment with me. Imagine right after you watch this talk, you leave here and you go to the closest airport and you park yourself at LAX for an hour, and you ask everyone getting off a plane, “Why did you choose to spend your money to come to Los Angeles?” Would you ever expect them to all give the same answer? Would you ever expect any of them to be able to sum up that answer in a tweet or a sentence? Would you expect if they came back again next month that they would give the same answer? Would you expect that even one of them would say, “I came here because President Obama said I should be here by the end of the year?”
Right, it’s ridiculous for us to think that because Los Angeles is a big wonderful diverse city with so many things to do, and everyone on that plane should have a different reason. Well, if you think Los Angeles is big, you do not know the definition of big. Space is pretty big. Space is the closest thing that we can conceive up to the infinite. I love this picture from the Hubble, because every little one of those specs of confetti is not a city, or a nation, or a continent, it’s not a planet or a star, it is a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies. Our universe is enormous, it is mind-bogglingly big and diverse. And our reasons for going there are correspondingly large.
We’ve become, thanks to the internet, a culture of Buzzfeed listicles, and the “Top 10 Reasons Why We Go To Space.” I don’t think you can give the top 10 reasons why we go to space, because after all there are seven billions of us and God knows, how many planets and stars and reasons out there. You just can’t summarize it all. I think the only question that makes sense is, “What do you think it’s worth it for you to spend your time and your money? Whether you’re a taxpayer, and if you’re a US taxpayer, you contribute about one dollar a week to the NASA budget, whether you are an innovator and entrepreneur in the space community, whether you’re an engineer who decided to take that job at NASA instead of going into the biomedical field, or any of the number of other worthy fields? Why did you choose to do that?”