Humans are unique as a species because, with the help of well-defined problematics, humans alone are capable of redefining reality. A problematic can be understood as an exceptionally-challenging intellectual objective (e.g., heavier-than-air flight, building the first atomic bomb, curing disease, landing humans on the moon, developing artificially-intelligent computers, constructing faster-than-light speed spacecraft, etc.) that requires knowledge-seekers to invent new facts and redefine reality in order to achieve the hoped-for objective. Although scientists prefer to think that scientific inquiry is constrained to an exploration of empirical facts, in truth, scientific progress is often instigated more effectively by the pursuit of a compelling problematic--in many cases, even by science fiction fantasies (Shatner, 2002)--rather than by an examination of established empirical facts (McGettigan, 2011). As such, science has proven to be the most effective means ever invented by humans to transform fantasies into reality.
JFK's goal of sending astronauts to the moon by 1970 is an outstanding example of what I refer to as a "problematic." A problematic is a far-flung goal that is largely based upon imaginative speculation, and that (critically!) inspires knowledge-seekers to invent facts and redefine reality in order to transform the dreamed of goal into a reality. There are numerous examples of problematic innovation that have had an enormous impact on the course of human events: heavier-than-air flight, the Manhattan Project, finding a cure for polio (and the ongoing search for AIDS vaccines), Alan Turing's (and Marvin Minsky's) advocacy of AI computing, Martin Cooper's effort to invent a Star Trek communicator in the form of the cell phone, Aubrey de Grey's pursuit of human immortality, David Ferruci's goal of creating a talking computer (similar to Captain Kirk's) and the IBM Watson project, etc.
The virtue of problematics is that they inspire humans to engage in "super-adaptable" innovation. Whereas other terrestrial creatures solve survival problems with their biology (i.e., Darwinian evolution), humans solve problems with their intellect. Thus, human "agents" can solve survival problems much more rapidly, and with greater specificity, than other creatures, however, this also means that humans have a penchant for creating new survival challenges at a faster pace and on a grander scale (e.g., overpopulation, pollution, global warming, nuclear Armageddon, etc.) than other terrestrial creatures. Fortunately, via the process of problematic innovation, humans have succeeded in "elevating their thinking" and, thus far, outpacing the survival challenges that we have generated.
I argue that humans will continue to enjoy success--and continue to outpace the crises that pose imminent threats to human survival--so long as humans remain committed to pursuing problematics. Once again, problematics enable super-adaptable human agents to elevate their thinking by developing solutions to far-fetched, seemingly impossible aspirations: cures for "incurable" illnesses, ending human mortality, creating artificially-intelligent computers, and not only shooting for the moon and planets, but building reality-redefining vessels that will enable humans to reach for the stars. History has shown that humans have got all the brains, wherewithal and fortitude to achieve the impossible. We can build a brighter future. All we need are visionary leaders who are prepared to lead the charge toward the Next Great Frontier.
So, why bother with space travel? Because, quite simply, the stars light the way to a brighter future. Space travel paved the way to Kennedy's New Frontier in the 1960s. If the United States remains committed to accomplishing ever greater feats in the future, then we should look to the stars to light our way. Thus, space travel is not a distraction. Space travel represents the path to America's--nay, humanity's--next Great Frontier.
*This is a brief summary of a presentation that I delivered at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Houston, Texas on September, 13, 2012.
Photo provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kennedy_Moon_speech_25_May_1961.jpg