Editor's note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a story from our magazine archives. This week, Elon Musk's company SpaceX celebrated the landing of the Dragon capsule, the world's first commercial spacecraft, marking a new era in space exploration in which private companies will step in to help NASA push the final frontier. This week's classic turns to 1959, ten years before the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. Companies were starting to build the crafts that would enable U.S. astronauts to fly. Then as now, scientists and government officials debated the costs and benefits of space travel and the possibility of discovering life.
"...Suppose when we get to the moon we find sitting in the middle of a crater a strange little marker bearing a carefully chiseled but totally incomprehensible inscription," one scientist told Fortune writer Bello; "Then space would really get exciting."
The space business, not counting missiles, already amounts to a billion dollars a year. U.S. industry is at work on rocket engines of awesome power, and on a vehicle to carry a man to the moon—and back.
By Francis Bello
FORTUNE -- Anyone who has wondered what it was like to live in the era that followed Columbus' voyage to America now has his chance to find out. Then, as now, thoughtful men disputed the merits of pressing into the unknown, argued that the possible fruits could not justify the cost, warned that the hazards to life and limb were immense. And then as now, the young, the venturesome, and the insatiably curious plunged ahead. "What we are witnessing," says one prominent member of the President's Science Advisory Committee, "is another irresistible urge of the human race. The justifications given for going into space have no more relevance than the desire for spices had for the discovery of America."
Privately, and sometimes openly, many scientists deplore the fact that enormous funds are going into space when there are so many unfinished problems, both scientific and human, lying much closer at hand. One persuasive answer to this viewpoint is offered by Herbert F. York, the young physicist who is Director of Defense Research and Engineering. "Everyone would agree," he says, "that we should be trying to raise the standard of living in India, and building dams in the Middle East. But no one is asking us to choose between dams and space--we could easily afford both. The space effort isn't a plot; it's something that appeals to a great many people for a great many reasons."
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