The thing about space is that it’s huge. Terrifyingly, impossibly huge. It took three days for the Apollo missions to get to the moon. It takes between five months and a year to get to Mars and around five years to get to Jupiter. It would take over eleven years to get to Neptune. Of course, that’s still in our neighborhood. The nearest star outside the Solar System is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light years away. It would take the Voyager spacecraft 80,000 years to get there, not that Voyager is headed anywhere near Proxima Centauri.
We’re not really built for space travel. We don’t live very long, relatively speaking. Our muscles and skeleton need gravity. We need oxygen, warmth, water, and food. Space doesn’t have any of those. We’re not good with high doses of radiation, and we tend to go little nuts all cramped up in a tiny rocket ship for extended periods of time.
In other words, exploring space is mind-bogglingly dangerous. Space itself is nothing but stuff that will kill you dead, interrupted by other stuff that will kill you dead. But John Glenn didn’t say, “Well, guys, I’d like to go into space seeing as that Yuri Gagarin guy already did it, but it’s really risky, so maybe we should just stay home and watch TV”.
When I was a kid, exploring space was a big deal. The last Apollo mission to the moon was in 1972, but I was way too young to know anything about it. The first space mission I actually remember was Viking II, which landed on Mars. Honestly, I was expecting it to find alien life. Not intelligent life, maybe, but life. Tiny Martian lizards or something. Of course, there’s no water on Mars, so there were no tiny Martian lizards or anything else.
Still, we landed a probe on Mars back in 1976. Surely the next step was to land actual people on the surface of another planet. It wasn’t (and don’t call me Shirley).
We launched Voyager I in 1977, and it was going to explore Jupiter and Saturn… which it did and so much more. Suddenly, every kid who was at all interested in science knew the names of Jupiter’s moons –Io, Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and the others that were known. Then Voyager found more moons. More moons! A lot of them. 67 or something like that. This was discovery, this was exploration, this was crazy fun, and I loved every minute of it. Thirty-six years later, the Voyager probes are still going. Voyager I is heading out of the Solar System into the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Back then I knew with absolute certainty that we were not alone in the Universe. It was only a matter of time before we’d pick up radio signals from an alien civilization. I figured that one day in the not-too-distant future, those aliens would land and we’d finally get to know our intergalactic neighbors. That was going to be awesome because the aliens were going to be friendly and share all their alien technology with us. Soon we would all have matter transporters and flying bicycles and laser guns and world peace.
And when the Space Shuttle program was first announced, I was convinced that the future was on its way. We were going to build colonies on the moon and launch more space shuttles towards the furthest reaches of the Solar System and beyond. This was it. We were reaching outward. Humans were going to explore the universe, meet aliens, live on other worlds, and have adventures. And it was all going to happen in my lifetime. That was awesome. That was hope.
Of course, none of that has happened. There have been lots of incredible missions including Voyager I and II, New Horizons, and Cassini. The Hubble Telescope has been completely fantastic. NASA landed a spacecraft on a comet, which is insanely cool. None of these missions have involved astronauts, and the future that a lot of us had stamped into our imaginations hasn’t happened.
We need to explore. The next giant leap doesn’t have to be Mars. Maybe it’s a largish asteroid. Maybe it’s Europa, Ganymede, or Enceladus. There might be microbial life right now on a couple of Jupiter’s moons. Ganymede and Europa seem to have water on them. Ganymede appears to have warm oceans underneath the ice. Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, appears to have both liquid salt water and a source of heat. It would be mind-bogglingly cool to find microbial life somewhere in outer space.
We need to explore for three reasons:
- The Economy. Yes, space travel is expensive. It requires a tremendous amount of innovative technology, but that technology becomes stuff we all buy. Space exploration is an investment that pays off big time.
- Discovery & Knowledge – big, important things.
The European Space Agency is planning a robotic mission to Europa in 2020. Robotic missions are wonderful, but if we want to capture the imagination of the entire planet – all seven billion of us – a human needs to walk on the surface of another world.
Imagine standing on the surface of Ganymede, the ice shifting slightly beneath your feet with Jupiter filling most of the sky. Imagine standing on the surface of Enceladus, drilling through the ice, searching for extraterrestrial life, while the rings of Saturn orbit above your head. How glorious would that be?
Exploration. Knowledge. Wonder. Imagination. These are the best of what it means to be human. Let’s boldly go already. Let’s shake the dust of this crummy planet off our feet and see the universe. We haven’t been to the moon since 1972. That was 43 years ago. Since then we’ve invented video games, home computers, virtual reality, Cabbage Patch Kids, digital cameras, the Internet, the Segway, motion-activated singing “robot” fish, massively online multiplayer games, and smartphones. We’ve cloned a sheep and decoded the human genome, but we haven’t been out of low Earth orbit.
On January 28th, 1986, I sat in the cafeteria of Catholic Memorial High School and watched the Space Shuttle Challenger take off. Millions of kids around the country were watching the launch because a teacher named Christa McAuliffe was one of the astronauts. The teachers at my school had set up TVs so that we could get inspired or something. Instead, we all watched in horror as the space shuttle blew up again and again and again. Seven astronauts died. Not one of us thought that we should cancel the Space Shuttle program or cut NASA’s budget or anything like that. If anything, we wanted more. We still do.