Fewer small steps and more giant leaps.
A ship is safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for.
Forty years ago today, a quiet man from Wapakoneta, Ohio began a journey that would make him the first human to walk a globe other than the Earth. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, two perfect names for astronauts if ever there were any, flew in a rickety ship for three days with their friend and lifeline, Michael Collins. They arrived at the moon on July 19th, 1969 and landed on July 20th. (You can relive the play-by-play here.)
Just before 10:00 p.m. Houston time on July 21, 1969, after six agonizing hours of preparations, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and uttered those historic words “That is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Over the next three years, ten other men would join Armstrong and Aldrin in the smallest fraternity on Earth.
We outsourced exploration to robotkind.
Sadly, following the last lunar landing in 1972, NASA stopped taking even moderately large steps, much less giant leaps. The Space Shuttle, meant to be an interim development to interplanetary travel, became a station wagon, running errands in low and mid-Earth orbit far longer than its intended life. Like a teenager with a restricted license, NASA never strayed too far from home. Rather than stretching our legs further and exploring new worlds, mankind confined ourselves to a small sphere of crowded space around our tiny planet. We outsourced exploration to robotkind.
I am aware of the irony and apparent hypocrisy. An anti-government, anti-tax libertarian conservative is calling for a government-funded space program? First, I am not, necessarily, calling for more government space travel. If we could find a way to commercialize space, as Richard Branston is attempting to do, that would be ideal.
But making billionaires vomit in zero G, while amusing, is only a novelty.
But making billionaires vomit in zero G, while amusing, is only a novelty. True commercialization involves real commerce, not just joyriding. Commerce has historically developed along the same path: exploration, mining, settlement, colonization, development, independence and trade. We stopped at the very beginning stage of exploration, and we need to get back to it. Until we find a commercial purpose for space travel, we will remain in the exploratory phase. Exploration has always been the most costly and most risky stage, and therefore usually underwritten by government (see Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus).
Our minds tell us that our lives and our power are finite, but in our hearts, we know we can do anything.
People will argue that space travel is not a priority. We have two wars to fight an ailing economy and a healtcare crisis to deal with. Was 1969 a piece of cake? Substitute racial unrest for healtcare crisis and not much has changed. There is a logic in fiscal and military priorities that is hard to argue with. But space exploration always trumps that logic. First, for as long as humanity lives only on Earth, we are susceptible to extinction. An asteroid, a solar flare, a plague, any number of mass casualty events could extinguish the human race. If we establish a colony on one or more planets, no one event can end the human race.
Second, and more importantly, humans were designed in a peculiar way. We were not made to plug along making widgets for 70 years and die content in our beds. We were made to be unhappy. We were programmed, from the outset to dislike our station, our environment, to such a degree that we want nothing more than to change them. To make them better. To fight against our place in life, to struggle against reality and reshape it to our will. To move that mountain just a little to the West. Our minds tell us that our lives and our power are finite, but in our hearts, we know we can do anything. Our hearts don’t care about fiscal priorities, logic or limits, we know we can touch the face of God, and we are never closer as a race than when we reach for the stars. It was our hearts that took us to the moon. We need to go back. We need to go further. Per aspera ad astra.