Yesterday, NASA announced a milestone in the almost 22-year history of its Hubble Space Telescope: The 10,000th refereed scientific paper based on Hubble data has now been published, reinforcing that Hubble is one of the most successful astronomical experiments in human history.
Many people will see this as an incredible achievement — a testament to humanity's indomitable spirit of inquiry. But make no mistake that others will hear this news and ask "why?"
They'll ask why we continue to strive to see further and deeper into space than ever before, without knowing what we'll find. They'll ask why we insist upon exploring a solar system that, by their account, has no immediate bearing on our lives. And they'll ask why, in light of recent budgetary crises, space agencies the world over deserve funding to seek out answers to the mysteries of a Universe that we will never fully understand.
And the simplest answer I can come up with is this: because when it comes to exploring the cosmic neighborhood we call our Universe, humanity has yet to even set foot outside the house. We have only just begun to look upon our solar system, galaxy and universe, and there is so much more to explore that we cannot even begin to speculate on what lies before us, waiting to be discovered. To not venture outside and take a look around would be not only boring, but irresponsible.
Last month, I had the chance to speak with astrophysicist Michael Shara — curator of the American Museum of Natural History's department of astrophysics — about the future of human space exploration. Shara uses data generated from Hubble for his own research, and, as an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, was responsible for the telescope's peer review committees in the 80's and 90's — so it was really only a matter of time before the topic of our discussion turned to Hubble.