Is Space Still an Awe-Inspiring Frontier?
By Edward Hudgins
Rather than continuing to be awe-inspiring, has the prospect of space exploration become boring to most Americans?
On New Year’s Day 2019, NASA’s New Horizon probe, which gave us spectacular photos of Pluto back in 2015, sent back images of a snowman-shaped asteroid named Ultima Thule. That object sits at the edge of the solar system and is the farthest ever photographed by a space probe.
Soon thereafter, China landed its Queqiao rover on the far side of the Moon. Just as remarkable was the communications satellite parked at a gravitationally stable location in space beyond the Moon that allows the rover to communicate with scientists on Earth.
Generations of Americans have found space, both the place and our efforts to explore and understand it, awe-inspiring. NASA landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969. Our robots now roam the Martian deserts. Probes gave us close-ups of giant Jupiter and of Saturn’s rings. The Hubble telescope imaged breathtakingly beautiful star clusters, nebulae and the most distant galaxies.
Has interest waned? For some, fiction is more fun than fact. CGI sci-fi flicks give us spaceships and alien worlds that, as eye-candy, beat out yet another picture of an actual dusty crater or astronaut floating in the International Space Station. For others, it might be that they’ve seen those craters and astronauts for years.
Familiarity breeds ho-hum.
The knowledge we gain from our space efforts will always be a source of awe and inspiration because, as Aristotle said, “All men, by nature, desire to know.” At our most human we thirst to understand ourselves and our world.
But what will it take for space efforts to continue to inspire awe?
First, we must fully recover an appreciation of human achievement and more closely consider the human virtues of reason, fortitude, a rigorous honesty, and the skill and imagination that it took, for example, to design, assemble, and make function together the millions of components needed to make a Saturn V rocket fly to the Moon. You can have such a transcendent experience by looking at the smartphone or laptop on which you’re reading these words. Think what it took to bring this technology to your hands. That’s inspiring!
Second, we need missions that are not only big human firsts but that point to ever-expanding opportunities for future achievements, in pursuit of aspirations and goals that do not live forever in the future but that we continuously make real.
The Moon landings will always rank among the greatest of humans’ space achievements, but, sadly, humans haven’t walked on the Moon again since 1972. We didn’t establish permanent bases or do any meaningful follow-up to our initial remarkable efforts. Part of the problem has been the astronomical costs, especially those related to the years-behind-schedule space station. Its budget has grown from $8 billion in the 1980s to $100 billion by about 2011.
Many have questioned whether the science done on the station is worth the cost. The truth, however, is that costs aren’t the only problem; it’s also about the lack of inspiration. The station continues to circle Earth, but what’s the inspiring end goal? What remarkable achievement are humans trying to gain using the station?
Third, we need the excitement and innovation of entrepreneurs in the private sector leading the way. Elon Musk and SpaceX can deliver supplies to the space station for less than NASA’s now-retired space shuttle. Both SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin have developed rockets that can return to Earth and soft land, allowing them to be reused — something NASA never figured out how to do. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic might soon offer sub-orbital flights for private paying customers, if Bezos doesn’t beat him to it. Robert Bigelow has developed private space station modules, and several companies have developed the technology needed to mine asteroids.
The private sector is solving the cost problem and opening opportunities for the future. Just as private entrepreneurs led the communications and information revolution, so space entrepreneurs can do the same for generations to come.
And where might all this be leading? Low-cost access to space can mean we’ll take vacations in orbit or on the Moon. It can mean a landing on Mars, not just to leave quick footprints and flags but as part of an effort to set up permanent colonies on the Red Planet. And if in future centuries humans transform Mars into a livable world, creating a breathable atmosphere and human-friendly temperatures, a new home for humanity, it will be the most awe-inspiring demonstration in human history of the endless potential of the human spirit.
Immanuel Kant wrote, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe … the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
I’m not a fan of his philosophy, but he does express well what should keep space and our exploration efforts always awe-inspiring.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Edward Hudgins is research director of The Heartland Institute, a space policy expert, and was a young intern at NASA during the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Hudgins is the editor of the book “Space: The Free-Market Frontier” (2002). He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
The Tread Marks of Chinese Company
By Tom Zelibor
On January 3, China became the first nation to make a soft landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. The subsequent video footage of the Chang’e 4 rover making its way around this unexplored terrain, along with the images of their first-of-its-kind plant experiments, have hearkened us to another era, when NASA’s Apollo astronauts planted the American flag on the Moon and returned home with new science, data and perspective on the world and universe that we all share.
The Apollo missions, however, were set against the backdrop of the Cold War, when space exploration was a proxy for the U.S.-Soviet fight for world leadership. Since the Chang’e 4 landing, part of the ensuing media coverage has spurred new debate about whether a new space race with China is beginning.
There are certainly groups in both countries who would like nothing better than to have an old-fashioned geopolitical race between two global powers. But that is a race for a different era and it’s not the one unfolding before us today.
For as strategic as higher ground may be, the forces racing to the moon are no longer just government assets. Today’s space race is being waged by entrepreneurs and commercial innovators, and this new and inspiring competition is bringing technological revolution faster to space exploration and the commercial marketplace than anything imagined or produced by the Apollo era.
While it’s important to pay attention to what China is doing on the moon, as well as its other space aspirations, they are not alone in their lunar pursuits. Nations such as India and Israel are planning on sending their own lunar probes in the near future. When you combine those efforts with NASA’s ambitions with its commercial partners for its Gateway program, and any aspirations the Russians may have for visiting and exploring our nearest celestial neighbor, the space race to the moon is becoming a more crowded enterprise than we could have ever envisioned, even just a few short years ago.
But the challenge to any race is having the resources, training and stamina to finish it. President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon before the decade was done was the echoing drumbeat for a generation. While it was not without challenge or debate, as a nation, we made a steadfast commitment to providing those assets to make that lunar race possible. In crossing that finish line 50 years ago, it was vision fulfilled and a national promise kept.
Today, that echoing drumbeat is as different as the racers that are now taking their places on launch pads — government, military and commercial. As much as national pride will drive any country to achieve its goals, today’s space race to the moon will be won more by the technology-leaping innovations and tactical partnerships than exceed any singular government appropriation by this country or any other.
In the space race of today, no one can afford to go to the moon, Mars or anywhere else alone. We no longer live or operate in an environment where resources, training and stamina are steadfast, secure or assured. This is why sharing costs and risks with partners and even competitors is a path worthy of consideration as we plot our return to the moon and endeavor to go beyond it.
That type of environment is what makes the emerging space race even more complex than a clear contest between two different geopolitical forces. The advantage of this new space race environment is that with more participants gaining access to space, global capacity and competence expand and grow beyond where it was originally rooted. The expansion is the rippling wave of opportunity that always comes with exploration.
People go where there is hope, growth and opportunity. Space is that place for many of us in this country, but it is also the same destination for others on this planet too. The costs are very real in terms of lives and national treasure, and any race in this environment is not without risk or challenge. But no market, pursuit or frontier was ever opened without taking those tough considerations in hand.
The tread marks of China’s lunar rover are a sign of the intensifying global competition in space, but it will not be long before there are many more tracks beside them as we, as a world, reach for the moon and the promise of what lies beyond.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tom Zelibor is CEO of The Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.