Note 1: This entry is featured in the 32nd Tangled Bank science blog carnival.
Note2 : I suppose you can think of this as third in a series of Deep Impact posts. It may be the last one for a while, but this mission has made me do a lot of thinking, so I reserve the right to keep writing!
I get a lot of questions from people asking why we should fund space travel. There are lots of answers to that, including the obvious (to me, at least) points about how our lives are much, much better due to the exploration of space (think for a moment what things would be like right now without satellite technology; tech that was developed by-- surprise-- the space program), what we've learned about the Universe, what we've learned about the Sun and how it affects us (directly and hugely, including causing power outages during solar eruptions), what we've learned about Earth's climate from simply going up and looking back down... and the list goes on.
But there is also a deeper impact. A much deeper one, a profound one.
It may not be universal in all humans, but exploration is a survival trait. When the climate changed, got colder, early humans who got up off their butts and went traveling, looked around corners, set off for new ground-- they survived. Ones who sat tight and tried to wait it out probably didn't do so well. Standing on our tiptoes and looking over an obstacle is, in a very real sense, what makes us human. Space travel is an extension of that. What greater obstacles than the Earth's gravity, the vacuum of space?
But there's something else, too. Space travel inspires us. When it's understood, when it's comprehended, when it's internalized, it propels us to new heights both literally and figuratively. It makes us better people.
It certainly made a group of school kids in Minnesota better people. Their teacher, Dee McLellan, was inspired by Deep Impact. She thought about how much copper was used in the impactor which hit the comet, and wondered how many pennies it would take to make that much weight. She told her 7th grade Earth science class this, and they made it a project: collect as many pennies as they could to equal that weight.
And they made it! They got 300 pounds of pennies, the actual weight of the copper in the impactor. But it's the next part that really inspires me: they sent the money they collected to their sister school in the Ukraine, where money is even tighter than it is in our own US school system.
The kids worked hard, and they did good. Inspired by the space program, they helped children they've never even met. Even though they're just starting to explore science and space, they were able to make a difference, and they made it clear across the planet.
... but you know, this planet seems a whole lot smaller when humans send ships across the solar system, just so we can peek around a corner and see what's there.