Comparing the size of a single human being to the vastness of the whole universe inspires feelings of amazement, wonder, and fear. Despite these feelings or perhaps because of them, humans have bravely ventured to the moon, low-Earth orbit, and have sent probes to planets as far as Mars, Venus, and Saturn. These endeavors, however, raise questions about their goals. Although President John F. Kennedy along with astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson all appear to have the same goals for space exploration, further inspection reveals that their underlying motives differ greatly. These motives, which stem from different beliefs about the benefits of space exploration, shape the rhetoric each uses to persuade his audience. Because he needed to appeal to college students and the general public, Kennedy promoted the tangible benefits of technological innovation and jobs. Because America was lagging in the space race, Kennedy also pushed for this mission as a way to beat the USSR. Since the late 20th century, however, Tyson and Sagan have developed more modern and abstract approaches for promoting space exploration. Tyson and Sagan, unlike Kennedy, focus on the big picture, both literally and metaphorically. Both aim to achieve the “cosmic perspective,” an understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, rather than focusing solely on the tangible benefits and competition. Tyson and Sagan both believe that obtaining the cosmic perspective would make individual differences irrelevant, resulting in a new viewpoint of the human race, a reinvestment in space exploration, and perhaps even a reevaluation of the meaning of being human.
Tyson and Sagan would perhaps argue that Kennedy’s ego has too much influence on his goals for space exploration. Kennedy pushed to land a man on the moon because he wanted America to accomplish this mission before the USSR: “In short, our leadership in science and industry, […] our obligations to ourselves as well as to others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.” Kennedy built up the country’s ego by leveraging examples of American greatness to justify further space exploration. He believed America should continue to show its superiority as the trailblazing country in space.
Sagan, unlike Kennedy, argues that ego shouldn’t be a motivator for space exploration. On the contrary, ego should be cast aside and instead science should be used to understand more about the cosmos: “Because science carries us toward an understanding of how the world is, rather than how we would wish it to be, its findings may not in all cases be immediately comprehensible or satisfying” (29). Sagan believes ego hinders humans from learning more about the cosmos because humans adamantly believe what they already know about it to be correct. However, to truly gain an understanding of the cosmos, humans must set aside their egos and accept what science proves true, even if this knowledge uproots their entire belief system.
Like Sagan, Tyson also argues against ego, believing that it keeps people from understanding the cosmic perspective. In the Epilogue of his book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Tyson warns about the dangers of ego: “The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us” (261). Ego limits exploration, because it restrains humans from being curious about the unknown regarding themselves and the cosmos. When humans egotistically assume they already know a great deal and that they are paramount in importance, they lose their humility along with the possibility of gaining a cosmic perspective. Kennedy’s leveraging of ego compared to Sagan and Tyson’s leveraging of science and the cosmic perspective demonstrates the evolution of their different rhetorical approaches into far-reaching ideas with long-term implications beyond a particular individual, country, or goal.
Kennedy’s ego can be attributed to his desire to win the space race against the USSR: “[…] no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.” The essence of Kennedy’s entire speech draws from being first, winning the competition against the USSR, and reaping the benefits of scientific advancement. Instead of competition, Sagan suggests connection and unity among all men: “National boundaries do not appear in photographs of Earth from space.” Sagan believes that amidst the frontiers and vastness of space, cultural and physical differences between individuals diminish; they are all simply members of the human race.
Tyson, like Sagan, believes space exploration should embody much more than a competition. Although Tyson acknowledges the benefits of competition and how it can drive America to push the forefront of space and science, he believes space exploration should ultimately serve as a unifying goal for mankind: “In some ways science transcends nationality, because all scientists speak the same language. The equations are the same, no matter what side of the ocean you’re on or when you’ve written them” (62). Tyson links this idea to the cosmic perspective. When men realize their insignificance in comparison to the rest of the universe, they gain humility that can help them achieve a deeper understanding of Earth and of other worlds beyond, as well as the human race. This understanding requires the collective efforts of humanity, regardless of nationality. Space exploration represents a unifying goal that causes humans to question all they know about life, the meaning of it, and perhaps the steps that can be taken to improve it. Unlike Kennedy who focused only on America’s achievements in space, Sagan and Tyson see the space as a venue for collaboration that could result in insights that could lead to a better future for humanity.
Kennedy, Tyson, and Sagan all address the importance of knowledge, but in very different contexts. Throughout his speech, Kennedy discusses using the newfound knowledge of space to advance America in science and technology: “Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were made in the United States of America and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.” Kennedy wants that knowledge to establish America as a leading technological nation, especially ahead of the Soviet Union, and to build confidence in its ability to land on the moon.
Instead of using knowledge to move ahead of other nations, Sagan believes knowledge should be used to foster “cultural exuberance” and to connect humanity to the rest of the universe: “[…] it is remarkable that the nations and epochs marked by the greatest flowering of exploration are also marked by the greatest cultural exuberance.” Sagan feels space exploration should result in a greater understanding of the connection between the human race and the cosmos—that humans are made of “star stuff,” among other insights—possibly leading to a reevaluation of everything humans know about themselves, especially when it comes to what makes civilizations and people thrive.
Tyson, along the same lines as Sagan, argues to use scientific knowledge for obtaining a cosmic perspective: “The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it’s more than just what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe” (“Epilogue” 259). Tyson feels that knowledge from space exploration should be used to enhance humanity’s cosmic perspective. Humans’ understanding of their insignificance in the cosmos could lead to a greater willingness to ask questions, to be open-minded, and to seek answers. Unlike Sagan and Tyson, Kennedy has a more parochial view and sees space exploration as a way for America to advance technologically and globally.
While it appears as though John F. Kennedy’s motivations for space exploration are similar to those of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan, a closer look reveals that Kennedy supports the tangible and material benefits of space, while Tyson and Sagan aim for humanity’s enlightened by the cosmic perspective. While Tyson and Sagan both acknowledge the advantages of technological innovation and scientific discoveries, both believe the cosmic perspective surpasses those tangible benefits because of its potential to transform the human race and how it views the world. If everyone had a cosmic perspective, imagine how differently each individual would interact and connect with another. Humans often like to think of themselves as unique; however, if humans were to obtain the cosmic perspective, they would realize that they actually have more similarities than differences. What could this change in perspective bring? Perhaps the human race has been able to progress thus far because even in times of adversity, it relentlessly pushes forward, believing in its ability to survive. Humans can accomplish magnificent tasks beyond their imaginations if they combine their creativity and intelligence and bravely explore the cosmos together. Perhaps the cosmic perspective means to prepare and guide humans as true pioneers into the depths of the cosmos, bent not on specific rewards but on the promise of knowledge and insight.
Kennedy, John F. “We Choose to Go to the Moon.” Rice University, Houston, TX. 12 September, 162. Address on the Nation’s Space Program.
Sagan, Carl. “Science and Hope.” The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996. 25-39. Print.
Sagan, Carl. “The Historical Interest.” The Cosmic Connection; an Extraterrestrial Perspective. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1973. N. pag. Print.
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “Destined for the Stars.” Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Ed. Avis Lang. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 55-62. Print.
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “Epilogue.” Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Ed. Avis Lang. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 254-61. Print.