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Today is a grim day for space travel enthusiasts like myself. As no doubt many of you know, today is set to be the date for the last launching of the space shuttle. In part thanks to being one of the few government programs reduced in the last three years, NASA is cancelling many of their other projects, ranging from the space shuttles and their replacements to the lunar landings that were due to happen at the latter half of this decade. And in my mind, this is a tragedy.
While we watch what may be the start of what may be NASA’s darkest hour (which says something) it is important to remember that the 20th of this month happens to be the anniversary of another huge day in NASA’s history; Specifically, the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Easily among the finest moments in human history, almost everything about the moon race and landings is awe-inspiring. Countless trials and tribulations went on for testing and training for the event. People then thought reaching the moon in a decade would be impossible. Looking back, it seems just as miraculous three men made it to the moon in a spaceship less electronically complex than a Nintendo Gameboy (to say nothing of modern smart phones!). Yet, in the end, the result was a moment when what must have felt like the entire human race tuned in as one to hear Niel Armstrong’s immortal words as he became the fist human being in history to set foot on another world. Having been born a whole two decades after the Eagle landed, it’s no small thing that I get choked up watching the old Apollo footage. If you have never taken the time to watch it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Despite not having something quite that prestigious to show for the last forty years, people seem to forget that so much of what we take for granted today began as space technology. Even discounting all the priceless scientific data on space and the solar system NASA has gathered, the impact has been enormous. Large innovations range from medical equipment and diagnostics, computers, portable heating and cooling systems, to small ones like Tang and Teflon. Even something like the cooling garment they’d developed for the Apollo EVA suits was adapted by NASA for a child who had been born without sweat glands back in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve provided these cooling vests to over seven hundred people with the same condition. While I am disappointed NASA has yet to deliver that moon colony they’ve been promising for decades, the modern world owes a great debt to NASA and the space race, and I have absolute faith more will come in the future.
If the government don’t all but shut down NASA first that is. Without going to far into politics, it would seem the current administration found the only non-military government program it felt was worth cutting when they laid eyes on NASA. Almost from the start, the agency has been decimated by purges in both money and man power. The lunar missions for later in the decade were grounded, along with several other probe launches and experiments. Not only were the plans for replacing the shuttle scrapped, but now even the mighty shuttles themselves are destined to be mothballed once Atlantis returns from Cape Canaveral. My parent’s generation looked at astronauts as the Columbus or Magellan of a new era of exploration. If these cuts aren’t reversed, I fear mine may get to see them become the Leif Erikson’s of a new era.
That’s if the free market doesn’t have anything to say about it. While the government may stop, several corporations have been investing increasing amounts in both space flight, and increasingly space tourism. These attempts range from Bigelow Aerospace’s continuing construction of an orbital hotel, multi-million dollar prizes offered to people developing space technology, and Richard Branson even went as far as to form Virgin Galactic, what in time may become the space equivalent of an airline, based out of the near-completed Spaceport America being built in New Mexico. Even in the original Age of Exploration, corperations like the Virginia company or East India Company were the movers and shakers that kept the ships running on time, and perhaps Virgin Galactic and thier ilk can do the same for the Space Age. Time well tell if the capitalists can succeed where the state is stepping out, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Regardless, I don’t think the government should be stepping out, certainly not to the scale they look to be doing. As much as I am against big government, NASA is far from a needless agency, and it provides a genuine service to both America and the world. In bleak times like the present, the prestige and progress of a space program can act like a beacon of hope for an entire nation, and the feeling millions of people like myself watching things like the Apollo landing is well worth the price tag. Times may be rough now, but it is an investment in the future, one that is close to guaranteed to pay dividends. Besides, I don’t know about you, but when times get toughest, I always look to the stars.
To close, I will quote President John F. Kennedy, whom gave this very speech before Rice University when asked if the space program was worth funding in the first place. Though I think the entire speech is relevant to this topic, I shall paraphrase the portion which I am sure many of you are familiar:
‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.’
That spirit of idealism and adventure was just as true in the time of the Pilgrims as it was in JFK’s day, and it rings just as true. Mankind will conquer space, it is not a matter of if, but when, and a bunch of government paper pushers can only delay it for so long.