Interesting article on CNN.com by Gene Seymour concerning the last flight, as it were, of the Space Shuttle Discovery on the back of a NASA jetliner as it makes its way to The National Air and Space Museum. But the article, of course, isn’t just about the end of the Space Shuttle era. It is a look back at the times that spawned the space race and the ideals of America.
The author wonders if America has, with the exit of the Space Shuttle and no apparent replacement in the wings, has to some extent lost its capacity to dream big, both in terms of space exploration and, possibly, the capacity to move forward in other ways as well:
The article, to some degree, reminds me of the famous concept of the pendulum effect. There appear to be times in history when we go in one direction, only to retreat and move in another direction a few years later. In politics, this could be moving from liberal agendas to conservative ones. In terms of scientific discovery, we may have moved from a period of exciting discovery to -maybe- a period of introspection. It can be argued that following the Civil War (and perhaps even during the Civil War) exciting advances in science were initiated. The Industrial Era also created a new and exciting move forward. By the early part of the 20th Century we were on the cusp of having electricity in all households, which meant we were moving towards having television, refrigeration, air conditioning, and, yes, eventually computers.
Air travel was in its infancy, but it would blossom quickly in the 20th Century, the technology becoming rapidly refined in part due to two World Wars and in part due to our desire to move both people and merchandise more and more quickly.
The space race was just that at the beginning. We had a common foe in the dastardly communists, and a fear that they would beat us in a technological war. Thanks to that impulse, we made it to the Moon.
And then we appeared to stop.
I suppose partly the fault lay in President Nixon, hardly one of John F. Kennedy’s biggest admirers. One of President Kennedy’s most recognized speeches involved our objective of reaching the Moon. Nixon, who had lost a very close race to Kennedy, slashed the budget of NASA following becoming President. But to blame him for NASA’s woes isn’t entirely fair. The fact is that President Kennedy set a goal and, once it was reached, the American public seemed to lose interest in the whole space exploration thing. Sure, the Shuttle got us excited for a while, but the Shuttle was never meant to go all that far out into space.
So what to do?
Going beyond the Moon was -and remains!- a daunting challenger. The rest of our Solar System if filled with hostile planets, and taking a manned mission beyond the Solar system is, at this point, simply impossible. Reaching Mars alone, in theory, would require “six months there, six months back (read more about that here). That’s a very, very long time to be outside the confines of planet Earth. And what exactly would be accomplished? We have robot probes looking at Mars and, frankly, they can do the exploration we need -at least at this point- without the risk of lost lives.
Sure, robot probes aren’t anywhere near as sexy as manned flights, but it appears to me that until we get better technology (ie, rockets that allow for much quicker travel) NASA may have to settle on the far safer use of these robot missions to explore our little corner of space.
Perhaps with overpopulation and dwindling resources on Earth, space exploration may experience a rebirth. It was born, after all, in the harsh shadow of the Cold War and reached its greatest success due to that very real impulse. Perhaps we need another spark to get things going once again.