Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Space: The Next Frontier, But Certainly Not Final

Marie and I went to Mexico for a couple weeks in November. One of the many times we found ourselves looking out at the horizon line over the ocean, I wondered aloud why so many humans take comfort in looking at the ocean, why so many humans find solace in the unknown sea.

I thought about this for a while. I realized we are only a few generations removed from those who looked out at the ocean as an unknown world, foreign to our senses, our adaptations, and our knowledge.

Now, thanks to the TV show Planet Earth, metallurgy, and James Cameron, we know more than can fit in to our brains about the 2/3 of our planet that is underwater. The ocean represents a physical world that we can just barely touch, just barely experience, but just barely enough to know it and to learn from it. The ocean was (and currently is) the last great frontier for humans to explore on the planet.

Just as early explorers set out to know the oceans, we are setting our sights on space exploration, and I couldn't be more excited to live in this era.

I can't talk about my interest in space without mentioning my Dad. When I was in elementary school, he built this huge 8-foot-tall telescope. It looks like this:

Not actually my Dad's scope, but looks just like this one.
He'd set it up in the field at school and invite the class to come out at night and check out the sky. Some of my best memories of my childhood were going camping with my Dad in Fox Park, Wyoming. We'd load up the telescope and drive out to meet other astronomers quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and stay up until late walking around, gazing at the stars, nebulae, globular clusters, planets, and other celestial wonders. At home, he'd set it up in the middle of the street. Cars would stop by asking what it was... sometimes people even stopped for a look. I took this for granted at that age. Doesn't everyone's dad build a huge telescope and plop it down in the middle of the road?

My Dad, bringing the world a bit closer for my sister.
It was my Dad who unknowingly introduced me to Carl Sagan. When I was in high school, I remember he was putting together a box of books to take out for donation, and I grabbed "Pale Blue Dot" off the pile. I've read and reread it several times over since. Just this Christmas break, he took us all out in freezing weather over Christmas break to catch an amazing pass of the International Space Station.

It's easy to forget where we are. It's easy to forget how infinitesimal our place is in the universe. Understandably so, because we literally cannot comprehend the size of the universe let alone our own solar system. But it's also easy to forget because we have to consciously take a minute out of our daily lives, look up, and wonder.

This simple act of changing perspective, I believe, is deeply embedded in our consciousness. It's why we evolved. It drives us to explore. It's what we feel, standing at the ocean shore. No other life form that we know of exhibits inquisitiveness and curiosity to this degree. We constantly are exploring and learning, just for the sake of it. Exploration makes us human.

This may not be a revolutionary realization, and it should be noted that I am not a scientist. I'm more of a daydreamer. And my scientist friends out there may shake their heads at my probable lack of understanding of the true nature of the industry. But I truly believe that we, as a nation, need to find the passion that John F. Kennedy ignited when he announced our lunar ambitions. I think the world needs more daydreamers to push the industry in the direction we want it to go.

With that being said, critiques of NASA often include worries that we shouldn't be sending our money in to space. (As if space exploration isn't awesome enough.) Those arguments don't hold water in my mind. NASA and their contractors also innovate and create new technologies that greatly improve our society here on the ground. Power drills, firefighting technology, memory foam, solar panels, water purification systems, and artificial limbs, to name just a few advances resulting from space exploration and related endeavors. And they do it all on a shoestring budget.

The Department of Defense is the one of, if not the greatest driver of scientific innovation today. And often, the interests of organizations often overlap; many contractors who work with NASA make their bread and butter through defense contracts. It's a fine balance between the two diametrically opposed forces of exploration and destruction.
"And yet we’ve always had an odd standard for judging the cost and the value of manned space exploration. As it happens, the cost to run and sustain the Space Station is about the same as the cost to run a single U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier battle group. We have 10 aircraft carriers at sea, with two more under construction. And while an aircraft carrier at sea is a hive of nonstop activity, that activity is arguably just as circular as what goes on in space. It involves maintenance and routine operations and practice for fighting that most likely will never happen." The Atlantic

Isn't that the great irony of the space industry? With the ongoing face-off between exploration and destruction, I wish I had the power to tip the scales.

I know who does have the power. Unfortunately, it's a lot of people; a critical mass of citizens telling their leaders where our priorities should lie. Fortunately, space exploration has universal appeal. Space has awoken the imaginations in every culture in every part of human history. Now we have the power to explore it.

We were bounded only by the Earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls.
- Carl Sagan

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