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Space Case


Space, the final frontier. Ever since I heard actor William Shatner intone those words at the beginning of Star Trek (and probably for a little while before), I’ve always been fascinated by space exploration. In the 21st century, there are fewer and fewer horizons to explore on this planet; we have satellite mapped nearly every inch on it and it is possible to see on Google Earth nearly every place on Earth.

We are just making our first tentative steps into a much larger universe, exploring the planets of our own solar system with robotic probes and looking at our skies with much more sophisticated telescopes and space telescopes. We have detected the presence of extrasolar planets, some of which might even be earth-like.

It is in our nature to explore. We have a curiosity within us, as a species, to want to know what lies beyond what we can see. We want to experience new things, see sights that aren’t in our own community. I experienced some of that directly standing on the Great Wall of China earlier this year and at the Grand Canyon a few years ago. I hope to experience something similar when I travel to Stonehenge, the African veldt, Kuala Lampur’s twin towers or Paris’ Eiffel Tower someday.

I can only imagine what it would feel like to stand on a different planet. I probably won’t ever feel that directly; lunar colonization is 50-100 years away, as is human exploration of Mars. Still, what a thrill it would be to stand before Olympic Mons, even in an environmental suit. How beautiful to see the rings of Saturn from a spacecraft, or stand on an entirely new planet without a space suit, seeing sights we can’t even imagine.

The more we learn about our Universe, the more amazing a place it becomes. There is so much more diversity to it than we thought possible – and yet we have yet to find any signs of life besides our own at least as yet. However, given the enormous size of the universe, the odds of us being the only intelligent life out there are astronomical; it is far more likely that the universe is teeming with life, some of which is, like us, intelligent or at least what passes for it.

Of course, living in Central Florida, you almost have to be a space program booster. I live 45 minutes away from Kennedy Space Center and have visited there several times. I’ve seen space shuttles lifting off for orbit. I also understand how important the space program is to our region economically, which hopefully will continue even after the space shuttle program is retired.

There are many who believe that the space program is an enormous waste of time and resources. These sorts are often called “Proxmires” by those who support the exploration of space, named after the Wisconsin senator who opposed NASA and its goals back in the 60s and 70s. Why spend all that money just to put a couple of guys on the moon, he thundered, when we have plenty of problems here that could use some terrestrial solutions and would benefit from that kind of funding.

That’s remarkably short-sighted. Development of the Apollo program led directly to the establishment of the home computer industry; in the last 20 years that has been one of the leading economic drivers for our country, employing millions of workers and generating trillions of dollars in revenue. In addition to computers, we have launched satellites that allowed the establishment of GPS systems and cellular phones, both of which industries employ a lot of people as well. The technology we continue to develop for the space program helps us develop entire new industries with the potential of employing millions of Americans and generating untold dollars in revenue.

Also, we must look to the future of our own planet. Resources will become a real issue in the next 40 years; we are using finite resources at a terrifying rate. Not just petroleum, but minerals, metals and rocks. We will one day have to get these resources elsewhere; recycling will help us to a certain extent, but sooner or later we will have to find them on other planets or in the asteroid belt. Space mining will inevitably become a growth industry in the next 50 years.

Space also gives us the opportunity to move industries that damage the environment of Earth into space, where the by-products can be stored or eliminated without further harming our own planet. Who knows, maybe all our trash will one day be sent out on enormous barges into the sun, to burn up in the atmosphere of a gas giant or even out into deep space to float for eternity.

We are beginning to develop certain bio-technologies that will benefit from a zero-gravity environment. When a commercial space station is finally built (and I guarantee you that one day it will), we will see pharmaceutical advances that were developed in Zero-G that will revolutionize medicine. We will also see certain manufacturing go into orbital space stations or to the moon since a zero-G or low-G environment will provide efficiency benefits for certain kinds of delicate work.

Space is symbolic of limitless opportunities, both economically but also from a scientific standpoint. The more we learn about the cosmos, the more we learn about our place in them. We are, after all, as Carl Sagan informed us on his landmark PBS series “Cosmos” that we are all made of star-stuff. The same elements that make up the stars are also within our own bodies. It is therefore no wonder we yearn to learn more about them.

 

It is in our own best interest to encourage further exploration and colonization in space. It is important that we expand our presence in outer space – Robert Heinlein, the noted science fiction writer, once wrote that the earth is far too fragile a basket to put all our eggs into, after all and he’s quite correct. Colonies of humans on other worlds will possibly ensure the continuation of the species should something happen to our world.

There are tangible reasons to let your congressmen know you support NASA (or for you non-American readers, your own national or regional space organizations, such as the European Space Agency or the Chinese Space Agency) and would like to not only see them funded to reach their goals but to see those goals expanded. The more ambitious the space program, the greater the benefits we will reap from it.

It is one thing to be a starry-eyed space fanatic who thinks that NASA should be working on light sabers and warp drives. It is quite another to be a realist who understands that the future of our economies – of our very species – depends on reaching out into outer space and seeing what’s there, and how we might benefit from it. Perhaps we will learn from our mistakes here on Earth and exploit judiciously, although I find that to be somewhat unlikely given our penchant for short-sighted greed. However, it is certain that without the technologies we develop as part of the space program, without the resources that we will one day need to tap that are beyond our own planet, we will surely wither away as a species. The future is out there – it’s just up to us to manifest the will to seize it.

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