Why Explore Space? A Letter of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger of NASA to Sister Mary Jucunda

We’ve heard similar questions asked in the Church such as why indulge in the beauty of Liturgy and devote oneself to dogmatic discussions while so many children are starving on Earth. Perhaps the letter of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger will help in some way to answer these questions.

From Letters of Note

In 1970, a Zambia-based nun named Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then-associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in response to his ongoing research into a piloted mission toMars. Specifically, she asked how he could suggest spending billions of dollars on such a project at a time when so many children were starving on Earth.

Stuhlinger soon sent the following letter of explanation to Sister Jucunda, along with a copy of “Earthrise,” the iconic photograph of Earth taken in 1968 by astronaut William Anders, from the Moon (also embedded in the transcript). His thoughtful reply was later published by NASA, and titled, “Why Explore Space?”

(Source: Roger Launius, via Gavin Williams; Photo above: The surface of Mars, taken by Curiosity today, August 6th, 2012. Via NASA.)

May 6, 1970

Dear Sister Mary Jucunda:

Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart. I will try to answer your question as best as I possibly can.

First, however, I would like to express my great admiration for you, and for all your many brave sisters, because you are dedicating your lives to the noblest cause of man: help for his fellowmen who are in need.

You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death. I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!” In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our Earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story, which may help support the argument. About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!” But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

The situation which we are facing today is similar in many respects. The President of the United States is spending about 200 billion dollars in his yearly budget. This money goes to health, education, welfare, urban renewal, highways, transportation, foreign aid, defense, conservation, science, agriculture and many installations inside and outside the country. About 1.6 percent of this national budget was allocated to space exploration this year. The space program includes Project Apollo, and many other smaller projects in space physics, space astronomy, space biology, planetary projects, Earth resources projects, and space engineering. To make this expenditure for the space program possible, the average American taxpayer with 10,000 dollars income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space. The rest of his income, 9,970 dollars, remains for his subsistence, his recreation, his savings, his other taxes, and all his other expenditures.

You will probably ask now: “Why don’t you take 5 or 3 or 1 dollar out of the 30 space dollars which the average American taxpayer is paying, and send these dollars to the hungry children?” To answer this question, I have to explain briefly how the economy of this country works. The situation is very similar in other countries. The government consists of a number of departments (Interior, Justice, Health, Education and Welfare, Transportation, Defense, and others) and the bureaus (National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others). All of them prepare their yearly budgets according to their assigned missions, and each of them must defend its budget against extremely severe screening by congressional committees, and against heavy pressure for economy from the Bureau of the Budget and the President. When the funds are finally appropriated by Congress, they can be spent only for the line items specified and approved in the budget.

The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, naturally, can contain only items directly related to aeronautics and space. If this budget were not approved by Congress, the funds proposed for it would not be available for something else; they would simply not be levied from the taxpayer, unless one of the other budgets had obtained approval for a specific increase which would then absorb the funds not spent for space. You realize from this brief discourse that support for hungry children, or rather a support in addition to what the United States is already contributing to this very worthy cause in the form of foreign aid, can be obtained only if the appropriate department submits a budget line item for this purpose, and if this line item is then approved by Congress.

You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way. However, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on Earth. Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and the distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large-scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others. For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial Earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use. It has been estimated that even a modest system of Earth satellites equipped with Earth resources, sensors, working within a program for worldwide agricultural improvements, will increase the yearly crops by an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The distribution of the food to the needy is a completely different problem. The question is not so much one of shipping volume, it is one of international cooperation. The ruler of a small nation may feel very uneasy about the prospect of having large quantities of food shipped into his country by a large nation, simply because he fears that along with the food there may also be an import of influence and foreign power. Efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today. I do not believe that space flight will accomplish this miracle over night. However, the space program is certainly among the most promising and powerful agents working in this direction.

Let me only remind you of the recent near-tragedy of Apollo 13. When the time of the crucial reentry of the astronauts approached, the Soviet Union discontinued all Russian radio transmissions in the frequency bands used by the Apollo Project in order to avoid any possible interference, and Russian ships stationed themselves in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans in case an emergency rescue would become necessary. Had the astronaut capsule touched down near a Russian ship, the Russians would undoubtedly have expended as much care and effort in their rescue as if Russian cosmonauts had returned from a space trip. If Russian space travelers should ever be in a similar emergency situation, Americans would do the same without any doubt.

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth. I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering. The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life. Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients. The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Spaceflight without any doubt is playing exactly this role. The voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry. However, it will lead to so many new technologies and capabilities that the spin-offs from this project alone will be worth many times the cost of its implementation.

Besides the need for new technologies, there is a continuing great need for new basic knowledge in the sciences if we wish to improve the conditions of human life on Earth. We need more knowledge in physics and chemistry, in biology and physiology, and very particularly in medicine to cope with all these problems which threaten man’s life: hunger, disease, contamination of food and water, pollution of the environment.

We need more young men and women who choose science as a career and we need better support for those scientists who have the talent and the determination to engage in fruitful research work. Challenging research objectives must be available, and sufficient support for research projects must be provided. Again, the space program with its wonderful opportunities to engage in truly magnificent research studies of moons and planets, of physics and astronomy, of biology and medicine is an almost ideal catalyst which induces the reaction between the motivation for scientific work, opportunities to observe exciting phenomena of nature, and material support needed to carry out the research effort.

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth. It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life, and of man.

The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968. Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space. Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance. Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation. It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.

Very fortunately though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence. What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: “I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.”

My very best wishes will always be with you, and with your children.

Very sincerely yours,

Ernst Stuhlinger

Associate Director for Science

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25 Responses to Why Explore Space? A Letter of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger of NASA to Sister Mary Jucunda

  1. johnhenrycn says:

    Sister Mary should also question the huge expense of the voyages undertaken by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Cabot, Magellan…



  2. Toad says:

    You are not suggesting discovering The New World was a good idea, are you, JH?


  3. Frere Rabit says:

    The innocent heart-searching question is very real, and it is answered with compassion and reason, in a way that the instant ´clever´comments of regular contributors to this blog cannot match. What a wonderful exchange of correspondence. Genuinely moving.


  4. Toad says:

    Agreed. And not one mention of God from Dr. Stuhlinger. Very refreshing.


  5. Toad says:

    ‘…and it is answered with compassion and reason, in a way that the instant ´clever´comments of regular contributors to this blog cannot match. ”

    This is getting boring.
    If you are not a instant, ‘clever,’ regular contributor, Rabit, what the freak are you? I suppose you’d say you weren’t ‘clever.’ OK. That’s your opinion.


  6. Frere Rabit says:

    “not one mention of God from Dr. Stuhlinger”

    I think the introduction to this article gives the context quite clearly, and we do not expect any mention of God. If your main problem is theodicy, the solution is not carping on about illogicality on a Catholic blog, but working through your philosophical reasoning with well written theodicy, and there is much available.

    Prolly a waste of time to inflict your philosophical prombles on peeples wot doesn’t have the same philosophical prombles, eh?


  7. johnhenrycn says:

    “…in a way that the instant ´clever´comments of regular contributors to this blog cannot match.”

    So long as you include your good self in that category of ‘clever’ regular contributors, I shall not object. But still, Sister Mary and Stuhlinger put me in mind of the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial in the New York Sun a few years back, by which I mean, Stuhlinger is being just as patronizing to Sister Mary (although she deserves it) as the Sun editor was to Miss O’Hanlon.
    And btw, I am not an “instant” commenter. This thread was up for several hours before I gave my two cents worth, although I see you responded to mine in under 30 minutes.


  8. Toad says:

    I didn’t think the ommisson of God was in any way a ”problem.” It was a very well-considered ,welll-written, thought-provoking piece, and I salute whoever on CP&S decided to run it.
    I simply didn’t see any reason for you to get all toffee-nosed about it.
    Still don’t.
    But battered and bruised by the verbal shellacking I’ve had all evening. I will now adopt the foetal position for a few hours in my old Uncle Ned.
    Because, as Burro’s old Irish Granny was often wont to say, ”Begob and tomorrer’s an udder day, innit?.”


  9. Frere Rabit says:

    “I see you responded to mine in under 30 minutes.”

    JH, I simply read your comment after I read the article, obviously long after you did.

    I don’t spend any time looking at the hour that things were written, and those twho do are prolly more concerned with the mechanics of blogging than with the substance of the ideas expressed. The article is a very good one. The initial comments were trite. Your comment about women was particularly poor.


  10. Toad says:

    One last thought for JH. On ‘The Toledo Blade,’ we used to run the ”Yes, Virginia…” thing each Christmas, and probably still do. (Not my idea, to be sure, and had been going on since long before my time.)
    But we, the newspaper, didn’t see it as patronising at all.
    But, on reflection, you might well be right.
    But I disagree about the piece above.
    Not patronising, at all, I suspect.


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    I said “women”. Take that how you like. Put the worst possible interpretation on it that your feverish imagination can come up with. And quit with the “prolly” guff, yeah?


  12. Frere Rabit says:

    “Not patronising, at all, I suspect.”

    Digging yourself ion deeper and digging JH in deeper with you. Fun to watch, Toad…


  13. Frere Rabit says:

    “quit with the “prolly” guff, yeah?”

    Dear me, the usual JH promble with the Rabit language. When you say “Women” in that response, it is quite clear what youi mean. So don’t play games, you are too intelligent to denyh the sense of your rhetoric there. I think it was a cheap poiunt in response to an intelligent article. OK? If you have a promble with that, your promble mate, not mine.


  14. Brother Burrito says:

    Hey, no pissing contests please.

    This is a sacred space, innit


  15. Frere Rabit says:

    It was a good article, used for their idiot games by the usual suspects. No intelligent comment takes place here but the cynicakl voices have to trample all over it first. Well, pissing contest or not, it pisses me off.


  16. johnhenrycn says:

    God bless all, and good night.


  17. Frere Rabit says:

    Excellent. That’s seen them both off. Let’s have less of this nonsense.


  18. Toad says:

    Crckey, Rabit. You are crabby these days.
    What’s up?
    Donkey trouble?


  19. JabbaPapa says:

    Agreed. And not one mention of God from Dr. Stuhlinger. Very refreshing.

    What a completely pointless remark !!!


  20. Toad says:

    Well, Jabba, it is a Catholic blog. And a longish article with no mention at all of Him is a little unusual, surely? I can’t remember another instance. But there probably have been one or two.
    In any case, you are doubtless correct.
    And Toad is abashed.


  21. Roger says:

    A very good article and for once sensible.
    The poor? Who are the poor? We will always have the poor.
    There are huge benefits that can and do flow from Science and these do not go against or are offensive to God.
    It is the sister here that is mistaken and hasn’t understood her Faith. Some are called on to active, some to contemplate, some to study etc.. The sister is Gods instrument , his hands in fulfilling her vocation. Dr Ernst Stuhlinger is fulfilling his vocation, he has a thoughtful human heart.

    We will simply look at Martha and Mary sisters of Lazarus. These give us contrasting Vocations.
    Luke 10
    [39] And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’ s feet, heard his word.
    [40] But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me.
    [41] And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things:
    [42] But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.

    Now this presumptous sister who wants to take the mote out of Stuhlingers eyes should look at the beam in here own vision of things!
    Luke 6
    [42] Or how canst thou say to thy brother: Brother, let me pull the mote out of thy eye, when thou thyself seest not the beam in thy own eye? Hypocrite, cast first the beam out of thy own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to take out the mote from thy brother’ s eye.

    The Church doesn’t exist a Social service. The purpose of the Church is the fulfilling of what God intended when he created that Soul. If we correspond to what God intended for Us to do then we are contributing to the whole of Our Lords Mystical Body.
    Our Lord came not as a Political Social Worker BUT to make the reparation for Adams Sin. Our Lord came to overcome Sin and open Heaven for those that of their own free will want Heaven.


  22. kathleen says:

    Some family problems have kept me away from the blog for a few days, but even though the conversation here seems to be over, I just want to add a few words.

    First of all, I agree with those who say that this is a great letter from Dr. Stuhlinger to Sister Mary Jucunda. Not only does Dr Stuhlinger demonstrate a profound knowledge of the current state of the world, and with this, both foresight and wisdom on how to deal with the challenges Mankind faces… but it is also evident that he feels a great respect and benevolence towards the work Sr. Jucunda is committed to.
    No need to actually pronounce the Holy name of God – his long explanatory letter shows the very best in men who care about others; and who therefore strive towards the well-being of future generations…. I would even say his words bring out the very Spirit of God.

    In the same way, I do not see Sister Jucunda’s question as being “presumptuous” at all! In her ignorance of what space travel is all about (and that includes many of us I suspect) it is very natural she should ask such a question. She comes from the poverty-stricken country of Zambia and she hears of the millions spent in what must seem to her to be a total waste of money. All around her are the tremendous needs of her people whom she loves….. and where small amounts of money could relieve a lot of suffering.
    Hopefully, with Dr. Stuhlinger’s lengthy explanation, demonstrating such kindness and patience – as well as erudition on the topic – she would be grateful to him…. and a whole lot wiser.
    I certainly am! 🙂


  23. Roger says:

    Kathleen I bow to your explaination and agree.
    Tolkiens Lord Of The Rings is a Great Catholic Work! Few Realise this. That book was accepted into Russia when the Bible was prohibited.
    The point is like Dr Stuhlinger here Tolkien Lord of The Rings no mention of God! yet it breaths of God.
    J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”


  24. Frere Rabit says:

    ““The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”

    And therefore how frustrating for many of us involved in education when we see a whole generation fascinated by the computer technology that creates the films, dazzled by the spin-off merchandise, and totally unable to enter into even the basics of the narrative.

    We fight a losing battle in a world where HOMER is no more than a character in the Simpsons and NOAH is entirely unknown, or at worst politically incorrect.

    Lapin the unbenidormed


  25. Roger says:

    Yes couldn’t agree more!


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