July 20th, 2009 was the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic flight to the moon, where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon. 40 years ago, space flight inspired such awe that astronauts were hailed as heroes and celebrities by men, women, and children alike. 40 years later none of us, besides the most avid space fanatic, would likely to be able to name one astronaut in service today.
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Despite the tragedies of Space Shuttle Challenger, and later Columbia, where the world is shocked into being reminded of the inherit dangers of sitting on 1 million gallons of rocket fuel, or re-entering the earth’s atmosphere at 1,870 miles per hour. We all see space flight as mundane because the vast majority of space flights since Apollo 11, have been mostly conducting seemingly routine scientific experiments. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in the importance of science in space, but these experiments don’t exactly inspire awe in the general population like, oh say, a manned mission to Mars would. We also don’t have the fever of beating those damned Ruskies because they might go to space and blow us all up, which we had during the height of the cold war when Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar Sea of Tranquility.
Watching some fantastic documentaries (such as Discovery’s When We Left Earth) celebrating the 40th anniversary this week, I got to thinking about the importance of continuing space exploration. I hear many people decry the importance of NASA and space flight. Most saying that it is a waste of time, and more importantly money. I disagree with such assessments. I often wonder if people threw out the same criticisms of our European ancestors, who dared to explore on wooden ships to discover “the new world.”
In my humble opinion, space exploration is important not only to humanity’s curiosity of the great beyond, but it is also important for the future of the earth and all of us living on it. So here I will count down “Houston style,” my top 5 reasons why space exploration is important for the world.
5.Promote Science Education – The Apollo missions inspired a whole generation of kids who wanted to grow up to be astronauts, rocket scientists, and engineers. We all know that science education has been slightly lacking in the United States as of late. Don’t you think that NASA’s return to the moon, or more importantly the much anticipated manned mission to Mars will again inspire a whole new generation to reach for the stars so to speak? I do.
4. NASA’s Environmental Research – You would think that the guys who burn a million pounds of rocket fuel wouldn’t be the most environmentally minded people in the world, or out of the world as it may be. However, most people don’t know that NASA does a lot of good environmental research while they are up there looking down at all of us. NASA has done a lot of work in studying air quality, climate change, alternative energy, and near earth objects; which as we all know from the movies can destroy the earth any day now without warning, unless we have a group of oil drillers, a nuke, and Bruce Willis.
3. Eliminate Earth Over Population – The current earth population is almost 6.8 BILLION people. Arguably beyond the carrying capacity of the earth already. The big dream is space colonization. We need somewhere to put all these people, or we all might end up living in skyscrapers, see all animal’s habitats destroyed, and smog up the air beyond what is breathable (see: China).
2.Natural Resources – Related to over population, we are burning through the earth’s natural resources pretty quickly. Out in space there is virtually unlimited resources. It is all just a matter of collecting it and bringing it back, which granted will not be an easy task. Still… it is virtually unlimited natural resources! There will be no more excuses for hiking up prices on barrels of oil. (Although hopefully we will have moved far beyond oil by then).
1. Put Ourselves into Perspective – From space earth is really small. From space earth is really fragile. Sometimes I think it would be a good thing to put our place in the universe into perspective. I don’t go into your house light up a stogy, start pulling up your carpet, kick down your door, and then kill your cat. Yet, we as the human species have been doing that to our own home the earth for quite a while now. If we start seeing how small and fragile we are out there floating in space, maybe, just maybe we will not be so prone to abusing our one true home.
Blast Off! Here’s to the men and women who gave their lives to explore the great unknown. We cannot ignore the importance of space exploration, nor be complacent in it’s meaning to all of us. I hope space exploration can continue to inspire, educate, and provide for us in the next 40 years as it has the last 40 years.
Image Credit: TopTechWriter.US on Flickr
I am convinced that if NASA were to disappear tomorrow, if we never put up another Hubble Space Telescope, never put another human being in space, people in this country would be profoundly distraught. Americans would feel that we had lost something that matters, that our best days were behind us, and they would feel themselves somehow diminished. Yet I think most would be unable to say why.
There are many good reasons to continue to explore space, which most Americans have undoubtedly heard. Some have been debated in public policy circles and evaluated on the basis of financial investment. In announcing his commitment to send the country back to the moon and, later, on to Mars, President Bush quite correctly said that we do it for purposes of scientific discovery, economic benefit, and national security. I’ve given speeches on each of those topics, and these reasons can be clearly shown to be true. And presidential science advisor Jack Marburger has said that questions about space exploration come down to whether we want to bring the solar system within mankind’s sphere of economic influence. I think that is extraordinarily well put.
But these are not reasons that would make Americans miss our space program. They are merely the reasons we are most comfortable discussing. I think of them as “acceptable reasons” because they can be logically defended. When we contemplate committing large sums of money to a project, we tend to dismiss reasons that are emotional or value-driven or can’t be captured on a spreadsheet. But in space exploration those are the reasons—what I think of as “real reasons”—that are the most important.
When Charles Lindbergh was asked why he crossed the Atlantic, he never once answered that he wanted to win the $25,000 that New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris. Burt Rutan and his backer, Paul Allen, certainly didn’t develop a private spacecraft to win the Ansari X-Prize for the $10 million in prize money. They spent twice as much as they made. Sergei Korolev and the team that launched Sputnik were not tasked by their government to be the first to launch an artificial satellite; they had to fight for the honor and the resources to do it.
I think we all know why people strive to accomplish such things. They do so for reasons that are intuitive and compelling to all of us but that are not necessarily logical. They’re exactly the opposite of acceptable reasons, which are eminently logical but neither intuitive nor emotionally compelling.
First, most of us want to be, both as individuals and as societies, the first or the best in some activity. We want to stand out. This behavior is rooted in our genes. We are today the descendants of people who survived by outperforming others. Without question that drive can be carried to an unhealthy extreme; we’ve all seen more wars than we like. But just because the trait can be taken too far doesn’t mean that we can do without it completely.
A second reason is curiosity. Who among us has not had the urge to know what’s over the next hill? What child has not been drawn to explore beyond the familiar streets of the neighborhood?
Finally, we humans have, since the earliest civilizations, built monuments. We want to leave something behind to show the next generation, or the generations after that, what we did with our time here. This is the impulse behind cathedrals and pyramids, art galleries and museums.
Cathedral builders would understand what I mean by real reasons. The monuments they erected to the awe and mystery of their God required a far greater percentage of their gross domestic product than we will ever put into the space business, but we look back across 600 or 800 years of time, and we are still awed by what the builders accomplished. Those buildings, therefore, also stand as monuments to the builders.
The return the cathedral builders made on their investment could not have been summarized in a cost/benefit analysis. They began to develop civil engineering, the core discipline for any society if it wishes to have anything more than thatched huts. They gained societal advantages that were probably even more important than learning how to build walls and roofs. For example, they learned to embrace deferred gratification, not just on an individual level, where it is a crucial element of maturity, but on a societal level, where it is equally vital. The people who started the cathedrals didn’t live to finish them. The society as a whole had to be dedicated to the completion of those projects. We owe Western civilization as we know it today to that kind of thinking: the ability to have a constancy of purpose across years and decades.
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