The Final Frontier
Manned space flight’s day may not yet have come
by Frank Cagle
Remember when space exploration had drama beyond whether the astronauts would get killed?
When I was in elementary school, I remember we all stood in the front yard at night and watched as a blinking beacon flashed across the night sky. It looked like a star in hyper-drive, and it was one of the most exciting things we had ever seen.
I knew we were supposed to be scared and angry about it. After all, it was a Sputnik spacecraft, launched by the Godless Russians, and it meant they were beating us in the space race. But you tended to forget all that standing in the dark and craning your neck to see something created by man streaking across the heavens.
As the years went on, the Russians kept getting there first, but we finally got on track and President Kennedy told us we were going to go to the moon. By the time I was in high school, we would go to Cape Canaveral and watch rockets take off. My uncle Gene was a big deal in the space program. He would eventually be a project manager for Skylab, and astronauts would proclaim it Gene Cagle Day in space at one point.
I watched the moon landing on Armed Forces Television, via a tiny black-and-white set sitting on a sandbag bunker and hooked to a generator. It was a surreal night as we watched the moon landing, with several members of the audience around us under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, having head-trips that rivaled Neil Armstrong’s adventure. It was a weird night in Vietnam, but then there were lots of weird nights in Vietnam.
Through the 1960s and the 1970s, it seemed that we were well on our way to the Star Trek universe, going where man had never gone before and exploring that vast final frontier. Then along came the Space Shuttle. There was a conscious effort to dampen down all that space-adventure stuff. Space travel would become routine. It was all about having a plane that could take off, go to space and come back: doing work; building space stations; doing experiments. And for awhile it was. America settled back with a yawn.
Then astronauts starting dying and we learned about O rings and sloppy contractors. We learned that the shuttle is a flying brick, and it was subject to being hit by flying debris on takeoff and the tiles could get knocked off.
Now it seems that the drama of space exploration has been replaced by a new drama—whether NASA is going to kill anybody on this trip.
Meanwhile, the unmanned Voyager spacecraft explored the Milky Way. The Hubble telescope gave us pictures of the universe that were unimaginable. It seems that unmanned spacecraft, equipped with marvelous computers and sensors and telescopes, can explore the universe for a lot less money, a lot more elegantly and much quicker than putting astronauts into spaceships and blasting off for Mars.
We are at a crossroads with the space program. The 30-year-old shuttle program is ending. Decisions will have to be made soon about where we go from here. Can you imagine the untold billions it will take to launch astronauts, send them to other planets, and bring them back safely? Can you imagine how much longer it will take, how much payload is lost with human cargo and how many resources will be expended to take human bodies to another planet?
Do we have the national will to attempt it? We went to the moon because we were determined to show the Russians and the rest of the world that we were still the best. Without the Cold War as a spur, will we have the long-term determination to go to Mars or anywhere else?
These decisions are for the long term. They last longer than even a couple of presidential terms. They last from one generation to another. To decide to commit to manned space flights exploring our galaxy and going to Mars means the expenditure of vast sums of money for a large number of years. It isn’t something you can start and then decide 10 years down the road to cut back. It would be a monumental waste.
I still believe, as I always have, in space exploration. But given the immensity of space, would we be better served by more Voyagers, an army of them launched with specific missions? Or will we continue to believe that space can be a hospitable place for humankind and that we must continue to send astronauts out there?
I would be more of a mind to continue manned space flights and send a team to Mars, except for one thing. After two and a half years of safety checks and billions expended, the Discovery “mission” has turned into a mission to find out if Discovery can get home safely. The success of the flight will be judged by whether we get seven astronauts home without them being killed.
The grand adventure of space exploration should be about more than that.