Eyes on the Skies

I was listening to Opie and Anthony on the radio this morning and heard something that cracked me up, for whatever reason. The topic was conspiracy theories, and they were focusing on folks who believe that the moon landings in particular were a hoax (one of the comedians on the show was amused by the fact that the USSR did not actively attempt to convince the public that the landings had never occurred, yet the bassist for Rage Against the Machine was getting airtime in order to try and convince the general public that they’d been bamboozled).

Anyways, they were talking about ways that NASA could prove that the landings had, indeed, occurred, and they began to spitball ideas. One of them suggested that we send another one of those rovers to the moon and have it take pictures of the footprints, and that “golf cart buggy” we left behind, and the stiff flag. Another person pointed out that the definitive proof can be found in the things we brought back, like rocks that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.

One comedian, however, got a bit distracted. On the topic of whether or not it would be worth it to make a return trip to our moon, he brought up the cost of the entire process between training, equipment, R&D, and so on. “Remember that video that went viral of that astronaut [Chris Hadfield] floating around in the space station and playing acoustic guitar? I mean, who paid for that shit?”

I began to laugh. I remember when that video came out, reportedly the first music video ever recorded in space. It was mesmerizing, seeing the Canadian astronaut sing one of David Bowie’s classics. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that an opponent of boosting NASA’s funding and promoting space exploration would see this kind of thing very differently. With all of the problems that currently exist on our own planet, it would be wise to set out and putting money towards solving Earth’s problems before we throw more if it towards the stars.

It’s a position I strongly disagree with, but it’s a position nonetheless. I remember where I was the day that Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry, spreading debris across the Texas landscape. I was 12 years old, and I was scrubbing pots and pans with my fellow Boy Scouts from Troop 642 as part of a Scout House cleanup day. I heard the news via car radio, a truck whose windows were rolled down with music blaring while it was parked next to our work area. We wandered over to the vehicle and listened as local reporters began to receive news that chunks of Columbia were raining down on homes and lawns.

I’ve always been a bit of a space junkie, so the disaster was particularly memorable for me at that age. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been surrounded by space-related images (look at Houston’s sports teams), or the field trips to the Johnson Space Center, or my undying love of anything science fiction-related. A few years later, I read Carl Sagan’s influential book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Spaceand it has traveled with me almost everywhere I go (it’s currently on my phone and iPad). I was hooked.

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

I think “romantic” is the perfect way to describe my fascination with space as a whole, though it is a bit overused. Just look at some of the thousands of photos that NASA just uploaded onto Flickr a few days ago. Buzz Aldrin being awesome…the lone astronaut saluting the American flag, with the black abyss stretching out over the horizon…this guy clumsily sitting in a rover like a lego figurine…I had literal tears in my eyes as I scrolled through some of the albums, convinced that the missions to the Moon (and the space program in general) are still the greatest things that humanity has ever achieved.

The Nae Nae, on the other hand, is one of our lowest points.

It helps that the number of significant discoveries and successful missions in the past few years has been staggering. Messenger making impact on Mercury. Rosetta and Philae landing on a comet. New Horizons visiting Pluto. Voyager 2 heading towards interstellar space. Curiosity sending back absolutely stunning panoramas of the Martian landscape. The revelation that liquid water flows on Mars (note the use of present tense). The discoveries involving potentially habitable Earth-like worlds. Elon Musk, SpaceX, and the never-ending quest to make exploration more economical, affordable, sustainable, and worthwhile. Chris Hadfield (yes, the guitar guy on the ISS) broadcasting fun and exciting experiments that help to inspire a new generation of explorers. The list goes on.

Even without an active Space Shuttle program, public interest in anything and everything space-related is at a significant high point. It helps that the success of many of the recent blockbuster movies—Moon, Elysium, Wall-E, Star Trek, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Guardians of the Galaxy, Prometheus, Avatar, Europa Report, this year’s Star Wars—all point towards a newfound interest in the stars above. Social media (that ubiquitous phrase…) has also worked in the space program’s favor, helping them gather buzz for their latest discoveries and helping us stay connected. The news regarding Mars and its water was conveniently released around the same time as Ridley Scott’s new film, which definitely helped both NASA and Hollywood. Heck, even the rovers and probes have Twitter accounts nowadays.

Yes, Curiosity just sent us a postcard. Yes, that’s adorable.

Despite the positive PR, though, it’s not like we’re just going to launch a manned mission to Mars tomorrow with full public and government support. According to NASA’s website, there’s a plan in motion to attempt to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars somewhere in the 2030s, a plan that was outlined in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (which has a ring to it). I have a feeling that both of these timeframes will be pushed back, but they’re definitely still doable given the unrelenting march of technological progress in this day and age.

There’s also the point that I mentioned earlier: with the amount of problems on Earth that still need to be solved and managed, how responsible is it to pump money into the space program? President Nixon was one of the people responsible for treating NASA as just another domestic government program that must compete for funding, a factor that has greatly contributed to the budgetary woes that continue to present engineering, design, and research challenges because of the costs involved. SpaceX and other privately funded companies have made it possible for us to lower the cost of resupply missions to the ISS, which has significantly impacted the way that we look at the logistics behind space-related travel. The use of rovers and probes on the moon, Mars, and comet 67p have allowed us to conduct research without the risk of putting human lives in danger (in addition to letting us explore inhospitable regions, like some of the gaseous planets).

I don’t see the space program as a whole going away any time soon, and I hope that the pace at which new discoveries are embraced by the public does not die down. The lunar landings were a result of American ingenuity, the desire for supremacy in an entirely new frontier, and our undying fear and distaste of anything that rhymed with “Bloviets.” The race itself is long over, but I feel like the goals and reasons for exploration as a whole need to be more fleshed out. Personal motivations are one thing, but when funds are being diverted from areas that are arguably more worthy from an Earth-centric point-of-view, the line between “should” and “could” becomes blurred.

For now, though, I hope that NASA takes full advantage of the current state of affairs and continues to push for more funding, more awareness, and more interest from people like you and me. To risk sounding cliché, I will again quote from Pale Blue Dot a passage I highlighted long ago:

“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game—none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.”

Think of it as humanity’s very own “Manifest Destiny” and all that jazz. Has a bit of a ring to it.

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