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.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Why We Go – Leaving Our Beautiful Home and Exploring Outer Space by Will Pomerantz at TEDxPCC
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?”
Well, I have a lot of reasons, not just one, and I’m only one person. My reasons to go to space don’t start with Tang and Velcro. NASA has a million wonderful spinoffs and there are things that have been discovered in the pursuit of space exploration that made my life and all of your lives better every day. But of course you could say, “Well, if we had spent $135 billion on some other scientific project we would have a lot of the same spinoffs as well.” So that’s not my reason, even though that’s important.
If I’m being really honest, the reason I fell in love with space as a kid and I’m just as in love with it today is because going to space really looks like fun. It looks like fun. If you’ve ever had the chance to experience weightlessness, you will want to do it more. When Ed White, pictured here, became the first American to walk in space, he didn’t want to go back into his capsule. And when mission control finally talked him back in, he said, “This is the saddest moment of my life.”
And I can understand that. How couldn’t it be? How can you look at that picture or this picture? Whether it’s from the 60’s, or from today, how can you look at that picture of Tracy Caldwell Dyson just chilling out on the International Space Station, and think anything other than, “God, what I wouldn’t give to be there? To float around like that? To see that view. That view. This kind of view.” The view that was brought back to us from the Apollo astronauts, the views that we continue to see today. I see this picture and to me it’s beautiful, but it’s more than that, it’s important.
Others have argued, and I believe that you can draw a very straight line from this picture to a fundamental change in the way that we, as humans, think about ourselves, and our role in the universe. After all, how can you look at a picture like that? How can you see that with your own eyes and not realize we live on a small world? That we need to be good stewards of our environment. That we need to be good neighbors to the other seven billion people trapped here on this pale blue dot.
We all know at some intellectual level that the borders we draw on maps are usually imaginary lines, but seeing it with your own eyes means something very different. And because of photographs like this, because we send astronauts, 4and we send satellites and telescopes, we now have multiple generations of children who are weaned on images like this, because now you can’t turn on your smartphone or your laptop without seeing a picture just like this one or like this one.
Because we have space, “the ultimate high ground,” we are able not just to look outwards but to look inwards back on our own planet and to recognize threats as they’re coming our way. This is typhoon Haiyan just two weeks ago bearing down on the Philippines. You want to ask me this question of: “Why is it worth spending even one dollar to explore space when there’s suffering and pain and loss here on earth?” Look at the pictures from the Philippines. Look at the photographs from superstorm Sandy, or from Hurricane Katrina, or any of a number of other storms. You will see suffering. You will see pain, loss, and devastation.
What you will not see is all the lives that were spared and the damage that was averted, because we knew these things were coming. Because our eyes in the sky, whether they’re robotic or humans, were telling us, “Hey everybody, look out, you need to do something about this.”
And, of course, as we explore more, we have learned that those threats don’t just come from within, they can come from with-out. You saw the Russian dash cam videos of the meteorites coming down in February of this year. An asteroid not much bigger than that could wipe out a city. An asteroid the size of the one pictured here could wipe out a country, not much bigger than that could wipe out civilization as we know it.
In the aerospace industry we have an old joke that says that asteroids are just Mother Nature’s way of saying, “So, how’s that space program coming?'”
Because we dare to — Because we and the generations just before us have dared to explore, we had this unique opportunity throughout all of life as we know it to maybe do something about that. To see our doom coming, to say, “No, we can stop that.”
But of the presumably infinite numbers of reasons to go to space, personally I’m less motivated by the ones that are about fear, and I’m much more excited about the ones that are about opportunity, about hope. One of the things I love so much about space is that same thing is contained in the same picture.
How cool is it that we are alive at a time when there’s not one, but multiple efforts to do things like mining asteroids? We’re living in a science fiction future. There are multiple efforts to put people on the surface of other planets. There are multiple efforts to go out there and do things that your grandparent’s generation would have thought were impossible. We are learning every day that there are even more things that we can do. Things like the Kepler space telescope are increasingly teaching us that you literally cannot point your finger at any corner of the sky without pointing at thousands, or millions, or billions of planets. We didn’t know that just a few years ago.
And as we get smarter and we learn how to look in a better way, we’re learning a lot more of those planets look like ours. They have the right distance from the Sun, they have the right composition and mass. Maybe they have the temperature range to support liquid water and perhaps life.
Now we’re not going to visit any of those planets in my lifetime. Probably not in my children’s lifetime, but some day we will. And it will be because we made those decisions to explore now. Scientists have taught us, largely from data they’ve gotten from space exploration, that we live in an expanding universe. Our knowledge of our universe is expanding, it seems at the very same rate. We’re becoming so much smarter today, and as we do it, we’re inspiring that next generation. I don’t mean Star Trek: The Next Generation.
We’re inspiring that next generation of kids. Because, you know, I travel a lot, I get the opportunity to speak to people around the world. And I can tell you children of every gender, of every age group, and every socioeconomic group, they get excited about space. They still have a connection. You can talk to a child and ask them: What they want to be when they grow up? And a lot of them will say actor or athlete, but some of them will say astronaut.
If being an astronaut could be that gateway drug that gets them to pay a little bit more attention in school, to seek that extra tutoring, to spend another year in college. And then they go on to become a geneticist, or a computer scientist, or an app developer, or what it is, I think that’s still a wonderfully worthy goal. And I still think it’s something that’s uniquely powerful about space, because we have that human connection.
You still see people willing to wait outside in line for hours to see the space shuttle drive down the street pulled by a truck. People have an inherent love for space. I don’t know if it’s written into our DNA or if it’s cultural memory, or what, but we still yearn to explore. We yearn to meet those who are exploring and ask, “How can I help you?”
But when this happened, when the space shuttles were retired, when one came here to Los Angeles, we also learned that people are horribly informed about what’s happening in the space industry.
How many of you had someone say to you, or maybe even said to yourself when the space shuttle was retiring, “Well I guess that means NASA is closing. I guess that means that we, as humanity, are throwing in the towel and we’re never going to explore space ever again.” That was the prevailing story in the media. That’s what a lot of people thought, that’s what a lot of people still think.
I’ve got really, really good news for you, if you’re one of those people. You’re wrong. That’s usually not good news, this time it’s good news. I say to you very honestly, I think there has never been a more exciting day in the space industry than today, because we are still exploring space. We’re just doing it in a different way. We’re no longer asking a president to give us a sound bite, and doing that one thing for a decade. We’re no longer building one rocket to take people from one country to one destination and that’s it. We now have a huge diversity of projects, a huge diversity of projects.
There are now so many, not just two, there are so many countries, companies and Kickstarter campaigns, that are exploring space, and they’re doing it at all different scales. And when I say different scales, I mean that literally. In this one picture, you can see the solar panels of the International Space Station, a multi-nation, multi-billion-dollar project, a national lab that is larger than a football field. It’s been continually occupied for more than a decade in space.
And in that same picture you see three CubeSats. They’re about the size of my two fists put together. And they’re both doing a type of space exploration. And this means that space exploration is no longer just the realm of super computer technology, it’s now also the realm of smartphone technology. And that’s a fundamental change, because when you can do space in the multibillion-dollar mega-laboratory, and you can do it in the smartphone world, when your price for failure is no longer a Congressional investigation and it’s now an email to your Kickstarter backers that says, “Look how cool it was we even tried.” That’s a fundamental change in how you do this.
We’re to the point already, not in the future, we’re are already to the point where you can know that at the end of a really successful bake sale, your high school student can send a payload into space. That’s a game-changer.
We’re to the point that those of you who stood up earlier when you were asked, if you wanted to go to space, you can actually go. 542 people have been to space, my company alone, Virgin Galactic, a place I’m so proud and honored to work, we have already sold tickets to space than more people that have ever gone before. We have 650 people who have paid up and waiting for their time when they’re going to step on that spaceship and fulfill that childhood dream and go to space, and it’s going to start happening within the next year. This stuff is really, really close on the horizon.
And because of these opportunities, because you can go, or your teacher can go, or your loved one can go, because your children can send their experiment, because we can try all these new things, we’re going to learn so much more. And we’re going to get to the point where the next time one of you is asked, “Why do we go? Why do we explore space? Why is it worth it?” You can give what I think is absolutely the best answer.
You can tell them, “Well, here’s why I am going.”
Thank you very much.