April: Onward and Upward? – The Time Will Come

Onward and Upward? – The Time Will Come

(a reflection on the space age)

George White’s commentary of March 29, 2012 stirred many memories for me. Foremost was my ten-year-old’s observation of my angry father as he read the morning paper on October 4, 1957. The Soviets had launched what amounted to a tin can with a beeper into low Earth orbit and the space race began in earnest. Those of us who grew up consuming the great science fiction novels of the likes of Jules Vern, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and dreaming of trips to space should give earnest thanks to the Soviets for their launch of Sputnik. Without it, it is unlikely that JFK would have made his famous speech and set us on the path to the Moon. Without the pressures of the Cold War, it might have been generations before these events came to pass.

We can all feel regret that now, over fifty years later, our manned space program is stuck in low Earth orbit and our astronauts are like hitchhikers standing by the side of the space road with their thumbs out, hoping that a Russian will stop on the way by and give them a ride to the International Space Station. What happened to the Moon? What happened to Mars? What about the Stars? What are we waiting for?

While those of us of a certain age feel these regrets, we have been extraordinarily privileged to have lived when we did. Carl Sagan said it best in a lecture in 1970: “In all the history of mankind there will be only one generation which will be the first to explore the solar system, one generation for which, in childhood the planets are distant and indistinct discs moving through the night, and for which in old age the planets are places, diverse new worlds in the course of exploration. There will be a time in our future history when the solar system will be explored and inhabited by men who will be looking outward toward the first trip to the stars. To them and to all who come after us, the present moment will be a pivotal instant in the history of mankind.”

Despite the longing to see humans heading for deep space, we must not overlook the powerful knowledge humankind is gaining from on-going exploration of our solar system and our universe by ground and space based telescopes and by robotic explorers. In all, there have been forty-four missions (successful and less so) to Mars alone. Galileo saw four moons of Jupiter. Our robotic explorers have shown us sixty-six. So, yes we are moving onward and upward. We continue to gain knowledge on a daily basis from our unmanned programs, but when will the manned program begin again in earnest?

There is a short-term answer to this question and a much longer-term answer. In the short term, it will depend on political priorities in America and other countries. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, recently testified before Congress urging an increase in the budget for NASA from one-half percent of overall spending to one percent; arguing that it would benefit our economy and asking “How much would you pay for the Universe?”. Given the dysfunctional leadership we see in Washington, any increase seems unlikely. I believe I may well live to see boots on the Moon again in my lifetime. I fear that they will be Asian, Chinese or Indian, rather than American.

The much longer-term answer is that this will and must happen. It may not be in my lifetime or even my grandchildren’s, but it will happen. Political views will change driven by population expansion, economic opportunities and larger military and geopolitical needs. The challenges of long-term deep-space exploration are imposing. Humans have always been shielded from the debilitating effects of radiation by our atmosphere. Over the millennia, our bodies have become rather accustomed to gravity and we are finding that extended weightlessness has pernicious effects. The psychological impact of prolonged confinement in a small space capsule with few companions is an important issue. Over time these problems will be resolved by various engineering efforts or perhaps with bioengineered solutions and the outward movement of humanity will begin. Onward and upward indeed!


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