This I Know: Howard McCurdy

Howard McCurdy, School of Public Affairs professor and winner of the American Astronautical Society's 2013 John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award, on space exploration

Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

Howard McCurdy

Q. Why is it important that humankind continue space exploration?

A. We don't exist on the surface of the Earth anymore. We exist from the surface of the Earth about 25,000 miles out in geosynchronous orbit.

We keep our weather satellites and our communication, global positioning, and navigation systems in space. It's as much a part of our existence as going to Chicago, only with Chicago you travel across the globe, and with space you go up.

Space exploration is important for commercial reasons, for scientific reasons, for national security, and for national prestige. We'd also like to diversify humanity onto more than one orb.

The big move for NASA right now is public-private partnerships. NASA has tried since 1972 to reduce the cost of space access and they haven't yet been successful. The new technique is to farm it out to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson. SpaceX has already successfully docked cargo carriers with the International Space Station.

Out of that hopefully will come technological breakthroughs that conquer the money barrier in space. It costs about $10,000 to launch a pound of material into space—we need to be able to move large structures into space less expensively.

The prestige of the space program is still terribly important in the geopolitical forum. A great nation, a great economy, it is thought, has to be a space-faring nation. You can see this in China, Russia, and other nations that are coming up like Brazil and Thailand. One of the amazing things about the Air Malaysia loss is that it caused a lot of nations that you didn't think had space assets to reveal them.

It's a club, and if you're going to be a major world power, you want to be a leader in the club.