Ns glory days are over. Since the end of the space shuttle, the world’s fascination with space and its exploration has begun to wane. In tough economic times, it has become increasingly difficult to justify NASA’s extravagant budget, while other more socially relevant programs have gotten the axe. What, then, is the future of space exploration? Is it to discover how to make space tourism a viable option? Exploit space’s natural resources for consumption? No one is quite sure how to profit from space yet, but there are certainly many ambitious (and incredibly wealthy) entrepreneurs out there who see space as what it is: the largest unexploited resource in, well, the universe.

However, even if these economic ventures fail, Robert Kirshner, the Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard, claims that we always have a compelling reason to keep searching. For him, it is science for science’s sake.

The trouble with astronomy, he claims, is that reasoning for funding can often be oblique and unbearably academic in a political climate that favors results. Other sciences can use what he calls the “greed” argument, namely that scientific progress in their fields will lead to economic progress for the country as a whole. Better yet, the biological sciences can present to an aging population (well represented in parliaments and congresses the world over) the myriad ways in which they will help them live longer, healthier lives. Or they can use fear, in a sort of post-Cold War arms race for scientific dominion. Xenophobia has always played an important role in the history of NASA. The truth is, politicians aren’t so interested in spending billions of dollars to find out how many light years away the nearest supermassive black hole is. However, as Kirshner wryly observed, if the Chinese are going to do it first, then suddenly politicians will listen. The U.S. would never have gone to the moon if it hadn’t been for Sputnik and the Russian Space Program.

Understanding our universe is of paramount importance, but perhaps not in the directly applicable ways that Congress would like. After all, we knew why we wanted to go to the moon, or send rovers to Mars. But studying dark matter? By its very definition, it has no visible effect on our lives; why should we fund it?

But it is this very topic that Kirshner claims is the most important to study as the field moves forward. After all, 70% of the universe is made up of dark matter, and so little of it is understood.

One of the main problems is that NASA, at its core, is not set up to do this type of research. Its funding is currently tied up in the construction of the James Webb space telescope, Hubble’s successor. In a time of constant budget crisis, it seems unlikely that the world’s governments will find room in their budgets for research that seems hopelessly separated from the world’s “real” problems.

As NASA faces unprecedented financial challenges, perhaps the solution is to increase international cooperation. As Kirshner pointed out in response to a question, NASA and ESA have had a fruitful collaboration on Hubble, and the Japanese have worked with the U.S. effectively on x-ray research.

Individual countries may never fund the type of research that Professor Kirshner and others want, but maybe the obscurity of dark matter will give scientists around the world a shared objective. Instead of competing against each other, scientists and space programs around the world can pool resources to combat the common enemy—astronomical costs. This new approach to astronomical research could not only lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the universe but also set a valuable precedent for international cooperation on all objectives.