Aspera ad astra

July 15, 2011

I was born after the first moon landing, so the first major space event I remember being old enough to understand was the launch of the first space shuttle. Sure, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were pretty cool, and sent back some spectacular pictures, but there weren’t any people on board. Unmanned spacecraft can go further and spend more time out in space, but there’s something more exciting when other human beings climb into a tiny compartment at the top of what’s basically a gigantic bullet being fired into space. In second grade my class took a trip to the space center in Huntsville and we got to see one of the space shuttles, the Enterprise, I think, while it was still under construction in an enormous warehouse. Inside there were models which one tour guide kept referring to as "simulated mock-ups". I never did get the chance to ask him where they kept the real mock-ups. When I was in fifth grade we watched the first space shuttle launch, mainly because it was a historic event, but also because it was the middle of November and our teacher had run out of lesson plans. A few nights later I saw the space shuttle-a glowing, fast-moving dot-fly over my house, and I felt connected to the astronauts orbiting the Earth. I think that was the first time I felt that, even though the astronauts in the shuttle came from different parts of the country, and, later, different parts of the world, we shared a home. When I was in eighth grade my English teacher, Mrs. Dobbins, entered the running to be the first civilian to go up in the space shuttle. At the assembly at the end of the year she gave a speech in which she said, "Reach for the stars." I’m pretty sure I’ve been to at least two dozen school assemblies, and graduation ceremonies where someone got up and gave an inspiring speech about reaching for your dreams, achieving your goals, and not smoking banana peels but my English teacher’s speech is the only one I actually remember. We all understood exactly what she was speaking about, and when she said, "Reach for the stars" it wasn’t just a catchy phrase. She had high aspirations and was encouraging us to do the same. After the Challenger disaster, which halted the space shuttle program for more than two years, Mrs. Dobbins was interviewed on the local news and she said she would still go if given the opportunity. She understood the risks of reaching for the stars, but also the rewards. She was also a true teacher: she wasn’t just reciting but teaching by example.

We’re told that part of what’s bringing the space shuttle program to an end is the cost. The technology is outdated, but, supposedly, it’s also too expensive to keep it going. My grandfather had an interesting response to anyone around him who complained about the money spent on space missions. He’d say, "It’s not like they’re taking a suitcase full of money and just leaving it up there." And for those who didn’t understand what he meant he’d add, "They’re spending all that money down here." The space program, at its height, employed thousands of people around the planet. It created jobs, led to the development of everything from Teflon to pagers. Scientists in space have been able to study osteoporosis, weather patterns, and even glamorous things like asteroids that may hit Earth. Jupiter may be over 360 million miles from Earth but its hurricanes are bigger than our planet, making them easier to study, and studying them can tell us a lot about how hurricanes on Earth work. And those are just some of the practical, tangible results of the space program. The space program also makes science cool. When I was a kid stories of scientific discoveries in space made my friends and I want to learn, to educate ourselves. The space program has also fostered international cooperation even though that, ironically, has been part of its downfall. When the Russkies had Sputnik flying over our heads Congress was happy to give NASA funding to blow up as many rockets on the launch pad as they wanted, and, even though there were ancillary benefits, military posturing was a driving force behind the Apollo program. I don’t think it was the challenges but rather the fear of Earth becoming a red planet that held back plans for missions to Mars, and with the fall of the Soviet Union there wasn’t as much motivation to plant the first flag on another planet. The probability that a mission to Mars will require international cooperation makes it easier to say, "We’ll get there…eventually." Benefits like technological advances, and a better understanding of how our bodies work and how our world works are considered by those who hold the purse strings to be too intangible to justify replacing the shuttle program with something better before it became obsolete.

And yet it’s the international cooperation that I think makes the space program so important. It’s been said that, if we find life on another planet, it will completely change how humanity views itself. However it’s also been said that people who have gone into space, who have seen the Sahara and the polar ice caps at the same time, have come back with a transformed view of the world. I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s simply good PR for the space program, but it’s hard to imagine that someone could leave this planet, even for a short time, and not come back with a greatly expanded definition of "home". And even for those of us who can’t, or at least haven’t had the chance yet to travel into space, can learn from the experiences of those who have. Not that we need their example. Some of us don’t need a reason to venture into space or climb mountains or descend in submarines to the deepest parts of the ocean, but no one can do it alone. We need the means-and we need each other-to collectively reach for the stars.

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