When I was in elementary school I remember my family gathering out in the front yard one night and we watched a blinking light cross the sky, appearing to be a moving star. It was 1957 and we knew we were supposed to hate the Russians, but we stood in awe of the fact that human beings had launched a satellite into space, even if it was named Sputnik.
America soon caught up and passed the Soviets. As fans, we began to follow astronauts such as Alan Shepard and John Glenn like movie stars. I grew up near Huntsville, Ala., and at one time had three uncles working in the space program. One of them was a project manager on Skylab. The family would go to Cocoa Beach in the 1960s and stand on the beach and watch rockets made in Huntsville carry capsules into space.
I say all that so you understand I have always been an avid fan of the space program. To boldly go where no man has gone before, in Gene Rodenberry’s phrase, is a worthy goal.
Why then did I feel relief and satisfaction last week with the launch of the final space shuttle mission? Because that flying brick has been a placeholder for a real space program for the past two decades. Full employment for defense contractors, spending billions to get up into Earth orbit. Something we accomplished in the 1960s. A reusable space vehicle? Yeah, right. If you don’t mind spending hundreds of millions of dollars to turn it around for the next flight.
Meanwhile, we have been sending explorers out into deep space. The Hubble telescope has been giving us pictures that have advanced our knowledge of the universe immeasurably. We have had landers crawling around on Mars. Voyager is still going out there somewhere, outside our solar system. Given the distances involved our exploration of space will have to be, and should be, with computers, mechanical devices, and rocket ships.
Manned space exploration is an impossible dream if we go beyond our own backyard. The distances are too great. And while I love science fiction as well, I don’t believe in wormholes and shortcuts to other galaxies. Warp speed? Yeah, Scotty, hit it. Let’s go to Alpha Centauri.
Never mind the technological challenges of transporting people who eat and breathe over millions of miles, can you conceive of a Congress that will provide the funds to make it possible?
We are catching a ride with the Russians to the space station until we get some new vehicle to get back into space. But instead of spending our space funds to get men and women out of our gravity, why don’t we turn it over to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and develop even more sophisticated computer and technological marvels to go out and explore space. Deep space. For science. For knowledge. To understand the origins of the universe.
There is a proposal out there to go to Mars. Certainly a worthy goal, something that would excite us all. But to what purpose? The same purpose as the moon landing? Yes, we did it. I’m glad we did it. But so what? What happened to the moon colony?
The horrendous cost of the shuttle program to get us up and down into earth orbit cannot be justified purely in terms of the results. We need a dedicated, constant, and level financial commitment to space. If there is one thing great distance and great ideas need it’s time. A long-range plan that lasts beyond administrations and stretches out for decades.
We should explore the stars. We should explore the nearby planets. But we need to stop wasting money on manned space flight and focus instead on explorers who really can boldly go where no man has gone before—and likely never will.
In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the super computer Hal ran the logic. He found the presence of human beings in the space station to be superfluous and wondered why they were there.
Hal was right.