Yesterday, the space shuttle Endeavor launched on what is supposed to be its final mission. Their task involves four scheduled space walks as well as a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) in order to deliver supplies and other equipment to those brave souls who look down on our planet with astonishment, and is classified as mission number STS-134. There is but one final mission planned for Space Shuttle Atlantis; another trip to the ISS for resupplying purposes – operation STS-135.
With the Space Shuttle destined for mothballing, its time to take a bit of time to reflect on two facets of space exploration – first, the sheer awesomeness of the history of human space-flight; and second, the reason why it is both even more cool and incredibly imperative that humanity continue to make space exploration a priority.
The Awesomeness of Space Exploration had a Price.
So, if this title is indeed a reasonable call for the country to indulge in more objectively-cool things, and the specific focus in this case is supposed to be the exploration of space, the first thing we need to do is draw a connection between that word “cool” and another word – “dangerous.” We view action heroes as “cool” because they face down mortal perils and incredible odds and walk away while quipping about how they were working on a great hang-over before the villain showed up. I’m partial to John McClane, myself; he was partial to Roy Rogers, and so on.
In the real world, however, John McClane barely gets into Astronaut 101. Lets look back over the history of manned space flight and lets begin at the beginning. Forget “experimental” flights with animal subjects, lets meet a man named Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Cosmonaut who lived in the Space Race backdrop during the early 1960′s. He was the first human being to enter space; in the Vostok 3KA, a vessel with a spherical “cabin” measuring 2.3 meters in diameter. Lets just go to this little website right here, put in 2.3 as that’s how many meters Gagarin had to hang around in outer-space in, and we get…7.54 feet. That’s how much room Gagarin had to move around while in space – about seven and a half spherical feet. That’s hardly anything; its like living in your closet. The technology was unproven; Soviet engineers had no guarantee for the Cosmonaut that he’d achieve a stable and controllable orbit, and for all they knew he’d be the first man to land – crash land – on the moon! The mission was on April 11th, and lasted for only a few hours; but Gagarin had effectively orbited the planet in the process. If “facing downright suicidal odds” is a definition of cool, Gagarin – who was perfectly calm before the launch, according to reports – was absolute zero.
Gagarin would be followed up by Alan Sheppard of the U.S. in a sub-orbital flight, and fellow American John Glenn in the first American orbital flight. Valentina Tereshkova broke the glass atmosphere by being the first woman to enter outer space in 1963. It wasn’t until the Russian Soyuz 1 project that the risks really hit home; launched in 1967, Gagarin’s close friend Vladimir Komarov died as a result of a chain of catastrophic technical errors. The rubber met the road, and the price of “coolness” became “the very real, proven risk of death.”
During this early era of man’s travels in space, humankind went from having no idea if it was even possible to survive in orbit to being able to return safely – and, perhaps most importantly of all, we’d gained an understanding of what the material and human costs could be. During 1967, among other advances (and failures), mankind was developing the rockets that would get us to the moon, the Saturn-V. By 1969, America defeated the Soviet Union by landing on the moon on July 20, 1969; erasing a heavy deficit in experience with superior technology. Space is indeed cool, and the moon’s surface would have frozen the three astronauts involved in the first mission – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – if it were not for the advances in knowledge over the 1960′s.
Space Exploration is our only safe Future.
So, we know that space travel is dangerous – two American space shuttles, Colombia and Challenger, both suffered catastrophic failures that killed dozens of heroes despite all of the improvements made over the last fifty years. Furthermore, we know it is expensive – According to a Forbes article by expert Michiu Kaku, each space shuttle launch costs between $500 and $700 million dollars. That might not sound like much in a time when our yearly federal deficit exceeds $1 trillion, but over the years those expenses do add up. Clearly, while being “cool” is a great thing, the fact is that in one sense our point is proven – we went to the moon, we won that race and there is no sense in pouring money into yet another victory lap.
However, with my full realization that I’m joining a chorus of people saying this, there is more to this issue than just doing awesome things for their own sake. Stephen Hawking has issued multiple warnings that Mankind must expand to other planets in order to survive. Mister Aldrin and astrophysics expert Carl Sagan, along with others, shared similar views on Youtube’s “Think Again.” There are economic and technological hurdles, of course; despite water ice being found on the Moon as well as on the planet Mars, accessing them and establishing a colony’s self-sufficiency would be a world-wide challenge.
I am far from an expert on this, but as a lay admirer of the space program and a concerned citizen of this planet its hard for me to disagree that there is a major imperative toward this goal. Its hard to argue that the space program is cool, even in the face of danger; yet its also hard to argue its risks sometimes come close to its rewards. However, Hawking, Aldrin, and Sagan make a powerful and compelling argument shared by all of those who have grown to fear the potential consequences of disease, famine, global warming/cooling/whathaveyou, warfare, and – least controllable of all – extrasolar disasters. Mankind can control its own fate up to a point, but unless it acquires at least one other small island of life in the solar system – to begin with – we are at the mercy of a universe that has very little.
Cracked.com is a favorite website of mine, and while a comedy site cannot exactly encapsulate the greater merits of science, for those of you trapped on the fence of this debate allow me to give you more fuel for the fire. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the links. First come five ways the cosmos could see fit to destroy us; and I’ll follow that up with seven more! Some of them, such as a gamma-ray burst, might be impossible to evade as a whole; our entire solar system could be hit, giving us little hope. Asteroids, however, are dangerous to a planet – and if we have a colony on Mars, the species continues. On the other hand of the debate, Cracked provides for reasons that space-travel, no matter how cool to those watching from afar, will always be unpleasant; these are reasons that Gagarin is quite familiar with. Finally, there’s our biggest kill-joy – there are far more mundane, simplistic dangers than even the ones in the third link of this paragraph, and they include such trivial threats as dust.
So there you have it; there’s the case for further space travel, and in my view it beats the case against it – hands down. The bottom line is that all of the money on Earth is well and good as long as we have an Earth, but if the Dinosaurs went down from a big hunk of iron, there’s nothing preventing us from enduring the same fate. Movies have made this quite clear to us – but, with the proper investment, there’s hope for us in the future. There’s a way to improve the odds against a universe that has given us our precious life only to surround us with threats to it.
Will there be future “Call to America: Do More Cool Things!” articles? You bet! But until then, why not read about something going on that’s decidedly un-cool, like Carol Moravcik’s article on the role of mental health policy in the budget debate. Or, if you’d like to hear about the Republican candidates in the upcoming Presidential Elections, you can start off on Jamie Diamond’s series about them.