It seems that being at Williams College again for only a weekend is enough to prompt a little self-reflection.

Hopkins Gate
Hopkins Gate

I returned to my alma mater for the 2013 commencement exercises. The graduating seniors seemed like a powerhouse of innovation, leadership, and social change. The commencement speaker, Billie Jean King, stood up for gender equality through her career in professional sports. One of the honorary degree recipients, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, went from being a refugee to founding hospitals that provide medical care in impoverished nations. Another honorary degree went to Annie Lennox, who, at a pre-commencement event, condemned material and celebrity culture and spoke about how her visits to Africa inspired her to HIV/AIDS activism.

What, I thought, am I doing to improve the world we live in? Sure, I don’t have the influence power of Lennox – who did acknowledge the irony that her celebrity status and material security enable her to drive activism – but my chosen career is all about building spaceships. What does that do to make the Earth a better place?

I truly believe that it helps. That I am serving a fundamental good.

Imagine this: a group of people have fallen into a hole in the ground. The hole is too deep to get out of, and resources at the bottom of the hole are very scarce. The situation is bleak. What are they to do? Those with liberal inclinations may feel that they can best solve their problems by banding together and coordinating their efforts: cultivating moss and vines on the wall of the hole for sustenance, helping each other out when sickness strikes, and sharing the water that collects in nooks and crannies. The conservatively minded among them might instead think that each denizen of the hole should try to improve their lot individually – if some parts of the hole get more sunlight and water than others, and so some of the people are richer than others, then so be it – because that improves the standing of the people as a whole and the well-off individuals may devote some of their hard-won resources to assist others.

I think that both of these approaches are important ways to improve conditions in the hole. But I also think that there’s another thing that the people in the hole can do.

They can climb out.

They can get together and hoist a representative from among their number higher, and higher, until that person can plant his or her hands on the lip of the hole and breach the horizon.

The struggle to climb out is crucial to meaningful existence inside the hole. Without the idea that the people can climb out, what are they improving life inside the hole for? There needs to be a goal – but more than that, the goal needs to advance. It helps to set the goal high, because in striving to achieve it, we might learn more about our environs and ourselves, and find other ways to improve conditions – ways that we might not have seen at all if we hadn’t started to climb. The people in the hole don’t know what lies above, so they will need to give their climber provisions – and so might develop new and improved ways to cultivate, prepare, or preserve food. They might need hoists to get their climber up to ground level – and so might design mechanisms and machines that save labor in other activities.

Most important of all: once out of the hole, the climber can come back to relate what they see…or to help others follow.

I build spacecraft. I don’t feed the hungry, or clothe the needy, or heal the sick – at least, not to much more or less an extent than the average middle-class person does. I don’t volunteer in the Peace Corps, or tutor in sub-Saharan Africa, or assist in impoverished clinics. I build space ships.

Because of spacecraft and the space industry, though, we have a global positioning system that allows those aid workers to get where they need to go. We have a global communications network that allows those volunteers to coordinate their activities from the most wired national capitals to the remotest wastelands. We have weather data that improves our ability to predict storms, droughts, floods, and climate. We have pictures of the Earth that show us the lay of the land, and how the land is changing.

Because of spacecraft and the space industry, we learn how to make more efficient solar power generators. We learn how to stretch out thin resources into expanded capabilities. We learn basic scientific facts about other worlds, giving us more lenses through which we can look at our own. We learn to build more and more precise scientific instruments. We learn to build more robust and effective machines. Sometimes, we put a human being on one of our spacecraft, and we learn even more. We learn to be better climbers.

I’m only one person, and I can’t do everything to help. I do what I can. One thing I can do is to keep moving the goalposts outward. I can keep us climbing.

To see the fruits of these efforts, I can look everywhere: from the precision medical device on my belt to the way we fundamentally think about the Earth as a planet, the influence of space exploration and industry manifests itself.

We need problem-solvers on Earth. I’m glad to see them. Alongside them, though, to keep making the world a better place, we need climbers.

I know I’m not the first person to say this. I also hope I’m not the last. But, you know, sometimes it needs saying.

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