I'm generally a realist who dislikes vast government projects motivated by idealism. Why? Because most such projects end up hurting people far more than helping, and often bring about results exactly the opposite of what's intended. Welfare? Encourages dependence on government and discourages work. Spanish-language education for kids who don't speak English? Prevents assimilation. Opening borders for immigrants who just want to work and have a better life? Degrades American culture, hurts poor Americans, and imports crime. Idealistic projects don't have a very good track record, so I'm immediately skeptical of any such motivations.
However, my feelings are different when it comes to space exploration. Sure, it's expensive, but there's no hope of cutting the money out of the government budget entirely; eliminating the space program would just result in moving money into harmful idealistic programs. Unlike most idealistic programs, space exploration doesn't actively harm anyone and it does create valuable spin-offs. What's more, it's widely popular because the idealism of the space program is shared by the vast majority of Americans. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is right in saying that we should do more to push the "real reasons" behind the space program rather than focus merely on the reasons that are acceptable to us realists.
If you ask Burt Rutan why he designed and built Voyager, and why Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager flew it around the world, it wasn't for any money involved, it was because it was one of the last unconquered feats in aviation. If you ask Burt and his backer Paul Allen why they developed a vehicle to win the X-Prize, it wasn't for the money. They spent twice as much as they made.
I think we all know why people do some of these things. They are well-captured in many famous phrases. When Sir George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he said "Because it is there." He didn't say that it was for economic gain.
We know these reasons, and tonight I will call them "Real Reasons". Real Reasons are intuitive and compelling to all of us, but they're not immediately logical. They're exactly the opposite of Acceptable Reasons, which are eminently logical but neither intuitive nor emotionally compelling. The Real Reasons we do things like exploring space involve competitiveness, curiosity and monument building. So let's talk about them. ...
Real Reasons are old fashioned. How many of us grew up reading Tom Swift, or Jack Armstrong, All American Boy? Or other similar books stories? Not great literature, for sure, but they exemplified many of the values I think we like to see in people: inventiveness, competitiveness, boldness, and a sense of good feeling about what it was to be an American, in very simplistic ways but ones which hit close to home.
I don't agree with every nuance of what the Administrator says, but he's right in arguing that exploration for it's own sake is a worthy endeavor that almost everyone understands intuitively.