A week ago today, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic Vostok 1 mission, the first to place a human in orbit. Now, come 2011, the drive to reach for the stars has stagnated in the face of excessive government spending, demands for more financial responsibility, and the lack of national pride being on the line with a superpower adversary racing us to the Moon. Basically, while it was full speed ahead to the Moon in 1961, in 2011, the attitude is often one of “why bother exploring space at all?”
Well, on the most basic level, our survival as a species depends on it.
from which we came, hence the importance of space exploration.
Now, some may be saying “that's billions of years from now, so why worry about that now?” My response? In all likelihood, we don't have billions of years to ponder our fate.
Right now, the Earth itself is at a precarious point in its history. The Industrial Revolution, a common study in history books in the Western world, is an in-progress event in much of the so-called “Third World.” Right now, the world's two most populous countries, China and India, are on an incredible rise to industry in an unbelievable rate. Result: these emerging world economies are polluting themselves as they modernize, supposedly for the better. Right now, China and Indian urban areas are among the most polluted on Earth. In fact, it's a wonder that Beijing got the Olympic Summer Games in 2008, considering its horrid air quality, which it managed to improve, at least temporarily, for the Games. Now, while the pollution may be somewhat nationalized (at least at this point), the demand for energy is a worldwide problem.
The Industrial Revolution was built on fossil fuels: first coal, then oil, and finally gas. Right now, all three fuels are being utilized to drive the world economy at an ever faster pace. Problem: as more countries modernize, more sources of energy will have to be found as, right now, we face the probable depletion of both oil and natural gas within our lifetimes if more sources are not found. Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, will hold out longer with current reserves. Obviously, when the world's energy sources are depleted, the world economy will grind to a halt and our very way of life will be changed irreversibility. In a way, the planet itself will be used up.
We need not have to wait for the Sun to turn into a monster in order to destroy our world. We're doing a “good” job of that already, which creates a more pressing need to journey to space.
The old adage goes that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. One way or the other, we will be forced to leave our current home, the Earth, at some point in the future. Hopefully, by the time that event comes, we will have sufficiently learned enough from our history to do better on our second try at establishing a home, whether it be on a spaceship or on another planet. However, why should we have to wait for our current world to fail us before we start to correct our erroneous ways? By journeying into space, we are immediately forced to confront many issues that Earth-bound leaders are desperately trying to put off for the time being.
Those shiny metal panels aren't for decoration!
First up: sustainable use of energy and resources. There are no fossil fuels in the cosmic expanse that is space. Result: we must learn to live self-sufficiently. On the current International Space Station as well as the past Mir and Skylab, power has come from a very practical, yet often ignored on Earth source: the Sun itself. Thanks to today's high technology, sunlight offers more potential than ever to be converted into other forms of energy, as is currently being done on the International Space Station. The best part about solar energy is that, at least in some areas, it is limitless, virtually free after the initial investment, and creates no pollution, either. In short, lessons on efficient use of energy learned in space can be used to improve life on Earth.
So, were did we go wrong? Answer: the political climate changed.
In 1961, president John F. Kennedy famously declared that America would land a man on the Moon and return him to Earth before the end of the decade. While that may have been just talk in another time, before or after, in the 1960s, it was serious business as the Cold War was on the verge of becoming a hot one. While coming about with neutral aims, rocketry quickly became a military science. By the 1950s and the advent of nuclear weapons, the capabilities of a given nation's rockets was a symbol of that country's power. The longer the rockets could fly, the greater the capability of delivering atomic death over vast distances. When the USSR launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, it was obvious that Soviet rocketry was ahead of American capabilities. Theoretically, with rockets capable of launching payloads into orbit, the Soviets could rain death from the heavens of any city in the world. So, in order to keep the balance of power eve, American scientists had to work fast to equal their Soviet rivals. And they did. However, after the end of the Space Race, which America won by landing Apollo 11 on the Moon, the desire to compete subsided to the point that, by the mid 70s, Americans and Russians would cooperate on the first international space mission.
Another reason that the quest to explore space faltered was this: money. In 1961 when President Kennedy made his famous pledge, the economy was on the upswing, a trend that would continue through 1966. However, even as the first Apollo rockets were lifting off into space, there was trouble below. By the late 60s, the cost of President Johnson's Great Society welfare programs and the Vietnam War were combining to overburden even America's economy. By the end of the decade, America was into a recession that would last, with small rises but many more plunges, into the 1980s. Simply put, the money as well as the public's appetite for space exploration (remember, we won the Space race with Apollo 11) dried up.
In short, these two factors conspired to end the rapid ascension of space science and, without the impetus of the Space Race, the money that launched us into space was diverted elsewhere, the technology was left to stagnate, and the science itself was deemed an unworthy reason to explore space. Result: over 40 years after the first Moon landing, America is incapable of repeating the feat despite the wondrous advances in technology that have been made since 1969, a truly inexcusable blunder, one of the great mistakes in history that, to a lesser degree, parallels Europe's descent into the 1,000 year Dark Ages after reaching the pinnacle of achievement that was the classical Greco-Roman civilization. Now, just like scientists of the Renaissance, we are forced to reinvent what was a mastered technology in the past, probably spending far more money than would have been spent by continuing the Apollo Program and shifting the focus to permanent Moon bases.
To survive as a species, man must explore space and governments must find the funds to pursue this life-preserving undertaking. Yes, while the Sun may have a lifetime of about 10 billion years and thus, probably another 2 to 3 billion years of stability during which life on Earth can continue to exist without feeling the heat, chances are that we humans will use up our planet before then, thus necessitating a much earlier move into space. So, instead of pretending that the looming crisis doesn't exist, we as a species must confront the problems now by developing the capabilities to live in space in the future and perhaps improving life on Earth at the same time, too. If we are to survive, we must embrace our destiny as a space-faring civilization, the sooner the better.
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