Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Space: The Unreachable Frontier

One of my first memories was standing along side my mother and a crowd of people at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. It was 1981, and my mom had gotten me out of Mrs. Ravencraft's Kindergarten class to take me out to the airfield to see the Space Shuttle Columbia stop for refueling (or rather, the 747 that carried it) . It was the first flight of the shuttle into space, and it was a magnificent feat of engineering and capitalistic achievement for this plane to return to the United States with the promise of scientific discoveries, launching of satellites for companies throughout the country, and the continuation of the exploration of space that had ended a decade prior with the last of the Apollo rockets. And I got to see it. Apart from the 747, gliding down like some glorious eagle, landing on the runway for all the public to see and admire.

And now, with the shuttle program coming to a close, we look out again to the stars and see the moon and the planets as floating frontiers in space, and the dreams that garnered the science fiction masterpieces of Asimov and Bradbury now come upon us again. Can we once again reach the moon, Mars, the asteroids, the Final Frontier? It is our future. It is the salvation of mankind, to leave this planet and venture into the unknown, as our ancestors did in ships to the new world, or again into the American West on wagons in search of freedom, gold, and land.

We are a few days away from the anniversary of the tragic destruction of Columbia over the skies of Texas, and have just passed the anniversary of the Challenger accident. Proposed just yesterday was Obama's budget for the 2010 year, and it will turn out to be a tragedy with more consequences than the shuttle accidents. In Obama's proposed budget, NASA only receives $500 million for their programs. That sounds like a lot, but in the entire scope of things, it's only 0.5% of the total budget. In retrospect, the budget for NASA after Apollo 11 was 5% of the total budget.

Americans have lost their need to push toward the frontiers. We want to be entertained, cared for, cuddled, and the thought of pursuing our dreams, outside of get rich quick books and suing those who are successful, is quickly squashed. Academically, students are clumped together in mediocre classes, given the same grades, because those that succeed would infringe on the self-esteem of those who could not, for whatever reason, be successful. In the days of Apollo 11, as the title of the recent book talked about, failure was not an option. Today, failure isn't an option either, because no one is allowed to fail or succeed.

In the book I am reading now, The Lost City of Z, David Grann searches through the records of the Royal Geographic Society in London. He is astounded in the amount of expeditions that were launched even as recently as the 19th and 20th centuries (up until probably about World War II), into the Outback of Australia, the Amazon rain forest, the tundra of Antarctica. And of those expeditions, a good number did not survive. Failure is the foundation for which success is built. By examining the records of the slain parties, clues were given to battle scurvy, to chart the longitude position of the explorer, records of plant life and animal life, both edible and not, that forged ahead trips that were ultimately successful, and thus, created a victory for mankind over the planet that he lives on. Even Apollo 11 was built on the failure of previous missions, the given lives of the astronauts who were explorers and pioneers in their own right. The Astronauts of the shuttles delivered satellites that have revolutionized communications, weather forecasting, military security, scientific discovery. And yes, there have been failures, namely Challenger and Columbia, but those Astronauts would, if you talked to them today, would gladly have sacrificed themselves for the continuing efforts of NASA to push towards the frontiers of space.

But those dreams are coming to a close. The Space Shuttle program is soon to be retired, due to the age of the crafts, and with Obama slashing NASA's budget, there won't be any American space missions for the foreseeable future. We will have to hitch rides on Russian shuttles. It marks a sad time when the government no longer sees the pioneering spirit of America as being worth pursuing. Other countries will become the pioneers, and their successes will bring financial and scientific success, and we will have to catch up, which is all but impossible. It is very conceivable, then, that the first Moon Colony will fly the flag of the Chinese, bringing Communism and a government controlled state to the planets of our solar system. It will not be the individual that strikes out on his own, on ships or wagons or on foot, but the machinery of the state that will conquer the frontier before those that would be pioneers could get there to experience freedom. In this case, why bother?

As in the movie Contact, there is a hope that the private citizens of this world would finance space exploration independently of governments. Those such as Richard Branson's company, or those that operate out of Burns Flat, Oklahoma, might achieve commercial space flight soon. The argument for profitable space flight is one that borders on science-fiction speculation, or the wonders of the pioneers mental state. One of my friends on Facebook, D. Shockley, was discussing this subject after I had mentioned the cut in NASA's budget. He said, [his words in italics]:

Space cannot be commercialized beyond launching satellites because there is no direct profitable reason to do so. Is it reasonable to expect business to fund excursions to the Moon and Mars to find a profitability? No it really isn't. However, and I can't believe I'm goin' to say this, government funded space research in the past has lead to leaps of technology the we enjoy today. Microwave ovens, terrestrial satellite, tang, food preservation, microchips. The sheer irrational desire to beat the Russians to the moon pointed the way to profitable avenues with which business could latch onto and consumers enjoy newer and cheaper things. Maybe there are ways to commercialize the Moon and Mars, but until it can be demonstrated, it far far too uncertain for real business, unfortunately. Sorry John Carmack, your space company is an unprofitable pipe dream!

Very good points, and I agree with him up to the last line. Yes, the dream of flying into space privately, for profit and personal gain, is a pipe dream, because the cost of such an endeavor far outweighs the gain, for now. But like most pioneers in the past, those dreams have to be fulfilled. It is an obsession that mankind has to go beyond what is currently known. We have always been driven to understand everything. If something can't be done, we find a way to do it. While gravity is a universal force, there is very little that gravity can do to keep us here on this planet when the rest of the universe awaits us. So let the dreamers dream, and let them put it into practice. Give Icarus the chance to make his wings and to fly them, and hope he does not fly too close to the sun. We should support and encourage all those who want to be the pioneers of the 21st century. As Ayn Rand said in her lecture "Apollo and Dionysus," it is of the utmost importance that we reach for the stars, lest we become stuck in the mud and the grime of home.