Monday, January 17, 2011

Carl Sagan, Earth Politics, and Humanity's Future in Space

Space shuttle Discovery on the launch pad, a perfect symbol for America's wayward space agency.

It is the year 2011 and, when it comes to space exploration, NASA is in some serious trouble as the government wrangles over how to both fund the space agency and then how to apply the money to future missions. In short, with the surging government debt, it seems more and more likely that space missions in the grand styles of the twin Mars rovers, Cassini, and Deep Impact may soon be a thing of the past as we Earthlings, despite our capability to explore space and perhaps even colonize other worlds.

Just think of it: in the span of 12 years, humans went from being an Earth-bound species to explorers on another world, our Moon. Now, in the 42 years since Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind," what have we done when it comes to human spaceflight? Answer: not much. Sure, we've launched three major space stations, (Skylab, Mir, and the ISS)  and made spaceflight an almost routine event via the space shuttles, but have we gone anywhere? No. Why not? Politics.

The space race was a product of the Cold War, during which America and the USSR fought a series of battles in many areas but not in actual combat. First, there was the race to build atomic bombs, then the race for space, which was, in reality, a glorified way to test weapon delivery systems. It was no coincidence that many Americans went into a state of panic upon the launch of Sputnik, not because of the little satellite itself, but of the implication that the Soviets could fill Earth's orbit with nuclear weapons and then dive them onto America in a technological rain of fire and brimstone. Well, if the Soviets could launch satellites into orbit, America had to answer, and it did in short order. After that, both nations focused on developing bigger and bigger rockets capable of launching ever larger nuclear warheads.

Then came 1961.

With the dawning of a new decade, newly-elected president John F. Kennedy laid the gauntlet: America was going to the Moon by decade's end. Determined to fulfill the president's pledge and one-up the Soviets, American science set to work to develop all the technology needed to land men on the Moon and return them to Earth. Finally, after a decade of mostly triumphs but a few tragedies, Americans won the space race when Apollo 11's Eagle landed on the lunar surface. America had won the space race, so what was left to do?

Answer according to the politicians: cut back on space exploration. By the early 1970s, the obsession of going to the Moon that had gripped the public's imagination just a few years ago was seen as a waste of money and, after Apollo 17, given the ax in what is probably the darkest day for space exploration.

With the money cut off, the somewhat 'routine' lunar landings were a thing of the past. When America was in
a perfect position to colonize another world, we turned our backs on on the science and desire to explore that took us to the Moon in the first place, a self-prescribed lobotomy if you will, one that has set us back several steps in technological development. Now, ironically, we in 2011 find ourselves unable to do what we did over 40 years ago. Think of it: if we had stayed on our course towards rapid advancement of the space sciences, where would we be today? Moon bases? Our first colonies on Mars? Cities in floating in space? If you ask me, the answer is 'probably.'

Of all people associated with space exploration in the 20th century, the late Carl Sagan stands out among the rest for his ability to reach out to the public, explain things that would ordinarily be incomprehensible in a manner that anyone could understand, and his great concern for our world, Earth, and the direction it was going. In the below video by Michael Marantz, Sagan himself reads from one of his final books, Pale Blue Dot, the narration speaking volumes about humanity's unique nature, endless potential for exploration, and avenues for self-betterment, which are under great threat by the unwillingness of politicians to put the proper emphasis on space exploration.

After all, nothing, not even the Earth, is forever and if we are to survive as a species, we must journey back to the stars from which we came.

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