Rather than continuing to be awe-inspiring, has the prospect of space exploration become boring to most Americans?
On New Year’s Day 2019, NASA’s New Horizon probe, which gave us spectacular photos of Pluto back in 2015, sent back images of a snowman-shaped asteroid named Ultima Thule. That object sits at the edge of the solar system and is the farthest ever photographed by a space probe.
Soon thereafter, China landed its Queqiao rover on the far side of the moon. Just as remarkable was the communications satellite parked at a gravitationally stable location in space beyond the moon that allows the rover to communicate with scientists on Earth.
Generations of Americans have found space, both the place and our efforts to explore and understand it, awe-inspiring. NASA landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Our robots now roam the Martian deserts. Probes gave us close-ups of giant Jupiter and of Saturn’s rings. The Hubble telescope imaged breathtakingly beautiful star clusters, nebulae and the most distant galaxies.
Has interest waned? For some, fiction is more fun than fact. CGI sci-fi flicks give us spaceships and alien worlds that, as eye-candy, beat out yet another picture of an actual dusty crater or astronaut floating in the International Space Station. For others, it might be that they’ve seen those craters and astronauts for years.
Familiarity breeds ho-hum.
The knowledge we gain from our space efforts will always be a source of awe and inspiration because, as Aristotle said, “All men, by nature, desire to know.” At our most human we thirst to understand ourselves and our world.
But what will it take for space efforts to continue to inspire awe?
First, we must fully recover an appreciation of human achievement and more closely consider the human virtues of reason, fortitude, a rigorous honesty and the skill and imagination that it took, for example, to design, assemble, and make function together the millions of components needed to make a Saturn V rocket fly to the moon. You can have such a transcendent experience by looking at the smartphone or laptop on which you’re reading these words. Think what it took to bring this technology to your hands. That’s inspiring!
Second, we need missions that are not only big human firsts but that point to ever-expanding opportunities for future achievements, in pursuit of aspirations and goals that do not live forever in the future but that we continuously make real.
The moon landings will always rank among the greatest of humans’ space achievements, but, sadly, humans haven’t walked on the moon again since 1972. We didn’t establish permanent bases or do any meaningful follow-up to our initial remarkable efforts. Part of the problem has been the astronomical costs, especially those related to the years-behind-schedule space station. Its budget has grown from $8 billion in the 1980s to $100 billion by about 2011.
Many have questioned whether the science done on the station is worth the cost. The truth, however, is that costs aren’t the only problem; it’s also about the lack of inspiration. The station continues to circle Earth, but what’s the inspiring end goal? What remarkable achievement are humans trying to gain using the station?
Third, we need the excitement and innovation of entrepreneurs in the private sector leading the way. Elon Musk and SpaceX can deliver supplies to the space station for less than NASA’s now-retired space shuttle. Both SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have developed rockets that can return to Earth and soft land, allowing them to be reused — something NASA never figured out how to do. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic might soon offer sub-orbital flights for private paying customers, if Bezos doesn’t beat him to it. Robert Bigelow has developed private space station modules, and several companies have developed the technology needed to mine asteroids.
The private sector is solving the cost problem and opening opportunities for the future. Just as private entrepreneurs led the communications and information revolution, so space entrepreneurs can do the same for generations to come.
And where might all this be leading? Low-cost access to space can mean we’ll take vacations in orbit or on the moon. It can mean a landing on Mars, not just to leave quick footprints and flags but as part of an effort to set up permanent colonies on the Red Planet. And if in future centuries humans transform Mars into a livable world, creating a breathable atmosphere and human-friendly temperatures, a new home for humanity, it will be the most awe-inspiring demonstration in human history of the endless potential of the human spirit.
Immanuel Kant wrote, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe … the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
I’m not a fan of his philosophy, but he does express well what should keep space and our exploration efforts always awe-inspiring.