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The final frontier

| Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ask anyone who was alive at the time what they were doing July 20, 1969. Chances are, whether they were young or old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, they were planted in front of a TV set, watching with eyes wide with wonder as history was made and mankind reached the moon.  Think about that for a second — barely 20 years after the invention of colored TV, and decades before cellphones and desktop computers became commonplace, humans found a way to travel 238,900 miles to the moon. Such a feat could only come about through the work of mercilessly relentless and incredibly passionate individuals. In recent years, however, our species’ thirst for more knowledge about space has taken a sideline to more pressing issues, receiving fewer and fewer funds. In fact, it’s been 40 years now since anyone has walked on the moon. A renewed dedication to space exploration could open new doors for mankind, and unite a divided people under one goal.

When President John F. Kennedy confidently announced that America was going to reach the moon, it was not merely due to a desire to explore. With the Cold War raging, Americans needed a victory, and space was the way to do it. Not only would putting a man into space open doors for new technologies and weapons, but it would also strike a chord with our enemies, spelling out that we weren’t to be messed with.  America was going through tense, divisive times (sound familiar?), and space was a common goal to be shared. Obviously, things are different this time around. In the ’60s, NASA received almost 5 percent of the national budget. Today, it receives less than half of 1 percent. During the 1960s, many Americans felt the expense of Apollo was justified because of its importance to national security. Today, some people question whether human space exploration is valuable.

It’s a much loftier goal that we are after this time around — creating a settlement on the moon, as well as branching out farther, towards Mars. This obviously means that more money is needed. It’s understandably difficult to get a lot of people to rally behind the idea of pouring billions of dollars into space exploration when there are so many things to fix on Earth, but the implications of an expanded and more dedicated space program could be just what us Earthlings need. One of the many new technologies discovered could have applications on the ground. For instance, advances in high-efficiency batteries, energy storage systems, closed-loop environmental control and life support could benefit people back on Earth. Aside from the scientific and environmental benefits, there is a powerful, purely symbolic reason to set our sights on space again. Human beings are innate explorers. There’s a reason why science fiction and tales of discovery have dominated TV and movie screens for almost a decade now — we have a fascination with conquering the unknown. Now that Mount Everest has been climbed hundreds of times, it’s no longer that impressive; a new goal is needed. After the Earthly frontiers had been all but closed, it makes sense that we next looked to the skies. With this new goal comes new jobs and a new passion for the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects for younger generations.

Despite the government’s hesitancy to fund these extraterrestrial endeavors, several private corporations have taken the reins. Perhaps the best known of these entrepreneurs is Elon Musk, founder of Tesco Incorporation and SpaceX. Musk has made contracts with NASA and has spent billions on new technologies with the goal of “enabling people to live on other planets.” In 2016, National Geographic released an epic six-part miniseries, appropriately titled “Mars,” which documented a fictional voyage to the red planet, interspersed with real footage and interviews with some of the field’s preeminent scholars including Musk himself.

It is clear that there is an interest in getting back up into space, but a national consensus on just how important that goal is needs to be reached for any progress to be made. As Matthew McConaughey’s character Cooper says in one of my favorite movies, “Interstellar”: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” I personally think “Interstellar” was on to something — perhaps all the solutions to our Earth-bound problems lie in the sky, out of sight, but within in reach.

 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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