Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
– Robert Browning
Here am I sitting in my tin can, far above the world. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.
– David Bowie (Space Oddity)
Next year, the three remaining Space Shuttles will be decommissioned, and for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States will lack the capability to put a human into space.
I am a baby boomer. My young formative years were shaped in no small way by the so-called Space Race of the 1960s. I was eleven years old when one evening I watched a scratchy black and white broadcast and heard the words live: “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.”
I watched astronauts die; I saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explode. I saw the initial report of the loss of contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry, and knew immediately it was lost.
I met Neil Armstrong, the first to set foot on the Moon; and John Glenn, the first to orbit the Earth, in person. I knew Air Force colleagues with astronaut wings, because they flew outside of the reach of the atmosphere. I myself applied for training as a Space Shuttle mission specialist (alas, I was rejected). Astronauts were rock stars, and rock stars composed lyrics in praise of astronauts.
It pains me to see us as a society give up on space exploration. What has happened to subsequent generations, to not appreciate the sacrifices made by those who paved the way, and to build on those experiences and sacrifices to reach just a little bit farther?
We can reasonably offer a great many justifications for abandoning human space exploration. It is too expensive, too dangerous, we have too many other priorities closer to home. All are true, but none is a reason not to reach for the sky and beyond.
There many practical and farsighted reasons to continue that reach, starting with the fact that curiosity is a survival trait. The more we understand of the world around us, and beyond, the better prepared we are to live in an unforgiving universe. We can’t say today how we may apply this knowledge in the future, but there will come a time when we wish we possessed it.
Most of us don’t look at life as particularly easy. Today, we may face the prospect of being unemployed, employed in a boring dead-end job, losing our home, having health issues, or even simply frustrated with our lot in life and our seeming outlook for the future. Space exploration can seem like a trivial and unforgiveable luxury when we are just trying to get through the next day.
It is to the credit of humans that we have the ability to look beyond our individual issues to abstract concepts that define us as a society and a species. We need the knowledge, the experience, and the courage of those who are willing to push the boundaries of our existence still farther.
What we need, much more than solutions to our own individual problems, is heroes again.