Hearts and Minds: The Great Big Why

Orion Nebula by Mr. Physics, on Flickr

The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds. —John F. Kennedy

I just finished watching the 2008 documentary series When We Left Earth, which dives into the NASA missions from the Mercury project—putting a man in space—to the International Space Station. The eight-episode series highlights President Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon within ten years, chronicles the successes and failures of the space program, gives a heart-wrenching account of the space shuttle Challenger (1981) and Columbia (2003) disasters, and tells the story of man's quest to reach beyond the bounds of the atmosphere and explore the great beyond.

It's fitting actually, that this weekend marked the moon's perigee—it's closest point to Earth—which results in a bigger and brighter "supermoon" in the sky. And now that the four remaining shuttle orbiters have been decommissioned and distributed to the finest museums and space centers in the country after a 30-year total of 135 launches, a lot of us are left with a "Now what?" lingering in our minds. Is NASA dead? Have all hopes been dashed of going to Mars?

An Evolution of Belief

Gibbous Moon on black by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, on Flickr

If you had asked me four years ago what I thought about the space program, I probably would have disappointed you, and I certainly wouldn't have written this much about it. I thought it was too expensive to be worth sustaining, and that our focus and funding should be on existing problems right here on the ground. Well, I take it back.

I was born one year after the tragedy of the Challenger. My dad was an aerospace enthusiast, and I enjoyed my space Lego sets (the space shuttle launch set was by far the coolest, and I recently gifted the newer shuttle set to my nephew for Christmas) and Star Trek like any other kid. But I think that growing up after the greatest leaps and accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions (and just beyond the advances of the first shuttle missions) left me in the inspirational dust. I recall visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum with my family and making fun of my dad for insisting on reading every single placard in the entire building.

I get it now.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. —John F. Kennedy

Innovation and Exploration

Black Holes Go 'Mano a Mano' by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

It's no question that the 54-year-old space program has brought numerous scientific and technological advances to our world. These include LEDs, infrared ear thermometers, highway safety, aircraft anti-icing systems, video enhancment and analysis, enriched baby food, solar energy, improved mine safety, food safety, and so much more.

With this track record, it stands to reason that continued space exploration, deep-space habitation, and experimentation would yield countless more advances in these fields and others. Think also about the amount of innovation and creativity that the space program has fueled and inspired on the ground, from cinema to the science-fiction genre to the evolution of home computers.

Throughout history, we have been an exploratory people. Traversing the land bridge to Alaska, challenging the flat world theory by crossing the Atlantic, setting out to forge a path to the Pacific Ocean, these are just a few of the great feats of the human race. We are curious people, and the complete exploration of our planetary home naturally turned to the heavens with the dream of seeing what was beyond this rock in space.

Shuttle Endeavour Over Earth by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, on Flickr

Even right here on Earth, we push to build the tallest skyscrapers, the longest bridges, the biggest dams. We are addicted to exploration, from CERN and the quest for the Higgs-Boson to seeking a cure for AIDS and cancer. We crave adventure. We yearn for knowledge. We ache for discovery. Is it any wonder that the names of the shuttles include such noble words as Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and Enterprise?

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? … We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. —John F. Kennedy

Unity and Solidarity

A Blue Crescent Moon by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, on Flickr

When John F. Kennedy gave that famed speech in 1962 at Rice University in Houston, he had the nation at his feet. If you haven't watched or read the entire thing, you should watch it now. He infused a singular purpose into the American people and inspired dedication to the goal of putting a man on the moon within ten years. We were a nation united under a common cause of peace and exploration and that made us mighty. That made us bold. Kennedy set the ten year clock and we set to work. He gave us ten years, but we accomplished it in seven.

In the 43 years since Armstrong and Aldrin set first foot on the lunar surface, we have yet to feel the same conviction or follow such great leadership for any other project. We have bogged ourselves down with wars, turned innovation over to capitalism, and focused so heavily on ourselves as individuals that our selfish desires for material wealth have incubated the economic decline we have faced for the last four years.

We need solidarity. We need something new to believe in.

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun… and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold. —John F. Kennedy

The Final Frontier

Black Holes Have Simple Feeding Habits by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, on Flickr

We set out to conquer space 48 years ago, and the furthest man has made it is the rock that orbits our own. We may have sent rovers to Mars and spacecraft out into the reaches of our solar system, but the most we have learned is that there is far more out there to explore than we could have ever imagined. Our ignorance has revealed itself to be far greater than we could have imagined.

We've recently discovered—from the ground, no less—that M-dwarf stars, not visible to the naked eye, are more plentiful in the galaxy than we had previously estimated. They could make up as much as 80% of the galaxy's stellar population, and there could be hundreds of super-Earth type planets within those sun's habitable zones, far increasing the likelihood that within our own Milky Way galaxy there are other habitable or life-sustaining planets.

Room for Everyone

Lunar Eclipse VOL: Wanna Be MARS by Instant Vantage, on Flickr

Why is space so often assumed to be for the geeks and nerds? Why can't we break the stigma that galactic exploration is too far out of our reach and not worth the time, money, and effort? Why have we abandoned hope of putting people back on the moon, continuing to expand the International Space Station, and setting up a home base for expeditions to Mars and beyond?

It's true, these feats are still on our horizon. The shuttle orbiters may have been retired, but there are still plans in the works to continue our extraterrestrial progress. The Russians have been tasked with maintaining connections to the ISS with their single-use Soyuz capsules, and there are still plans to build out more modules and continue to collaborate with other countries to bring ongoing scientific and medical advances to Earth's orbit.

But our progress—especially back to the moon and then onward to Mars—is uncertain, often cancelled or postponed, and has been turned largely over to commercial enterprise, where money is the motivating factor. SpaceX launches their unmanned Dragon vehicle on May 7 to deliver supplies to the ISS. Boeing and others are developing their own vehicles, but the earliest planned manned missions are still years and years off.

What happened to our accelerated rate of innovation? What happened to our dedication to getting the job done and achieving our goals as a people? It's as if mankind has taken a giant leap backward.

The Great Big Why

Black Hole Outburst in Spiral Galaxy M83 by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, on Flickr

President Kennedy rallied a nation for a cause more noble than we'd ever believed in—a cause that we pursued even beyond his own life. That quest has come and gone and needs to be re-infused with the leadership and dedication that will get the job done. Let's go back to the moon. Let's go to Mars. Why? Because they are there. Because it is hard.

Let us dream. Let us explore. Let us rise to the occasion, embrace innovation, and take on the challenge of ongoing space exploration. Give us something to believe in.

Space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. —John F. Kennedy