The Payoff in Space
It isn't easy to tell exactly what item uncovered in the ivory tower of science will be praised joyously a century later.
In 1677, a Dutch scientist, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, was the first to discover the world of microscopic life.It seemed of no importance in any practical way. If Congress had then existed and had given van Leeuwenhoek a modest appropriation to continue his observations, Senator Proxmire would probably have given it his Golden Fleece award.Nevertheless, two centuries later, the germ theory of disease arose out of findings concerning microscopic life and, as a result, the average life-span of humanity (and Congressmen, too) was doubled.
Nowadays, it is space exploration that endures the "So what?" attitude, the "What's in it for me?" question.
We might speak of the mountains on the far side of the moon, the craters on Mercury, the plateaus of Venus, the dead volcanoes of Mars and the live ones of Io, the global glacier on Europa—all revealed in the last couple of decades—and yet one can easily dismiss them all if one is sufficiently "hard-headed."
It is less easy to dismiss the weather on Earth, which affects us all, intimately and daily.How nice it would be to be able to predict it accurately. How much better to control it and make it do our bidding.
The trouble is that Earth's atmosphere is a very complicated machine— unevenly heated by the sun, swirled by Earth's rapid rotation, loaded with water vapor unevenly and unpredictably by Earth's oceans.We just can't get a good handle on it.
If we had simpler atmospheres to study and analyze, we might work our way up to Earth's complications.Well, now we do!