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Fleeing the Final Frontier

The space program is now given to the international community.  It is gone from us…and so too is a bit of American exceptionalism. 

When John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice University in 1962 he said, “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.”

And the other too indeed!  Getting to the moon wasn’t the only challenge.  Later on in his speech the President pointed out that we shall not only go to the moon, but eventually to other planets and find whatever knowledge and hope might be there.  Are we to abandon that call now?  Shall we turn our greatest arena of scientific achievement into a glorified meteorologist hangout? 

Some conservatives will scoff at the notion that the space program and NASA are just another part of big government, that they waste money, and that the private sector could and would do better if it were left to them.  I cannot agree.  As our fellow contributor Colin said, “What we want government to do is that which the private sector can’t do…One of those categories is not Space Exploration because there is no definable profit motive to justify the investment.”

When the space program started, their mission and goal was to get to the moon and explore outer space.  No business man could possibly find profit in that.  Now, plenty of things which turned out to be enormously profitable and useful were developed directly and indirectly by the space program.  Still, you cannot build a business plan off of enormous spending and the unknown product.  This is where I, as a fiscal conservative, justify turning the reigns over to the federal government. 

What some fail to see is that the space program pushed the smartest among us and inspired many to become the best among us. Space is a frontier that has an infinite number of things to explore and discover. Even if we never find anything helpful or useful, which is pessimistically imaginative, the act of getting to those useless objects or places will provide countless challenges. Prior to the Apollo program nobody thought that we would need communication abilities strong enough to reach the moon – but those same technologies that were developed for that purpose have made our world more advanced. It wasn’t that we weren’t able to come up with that science prior to the space missions, but that our imaginations weren’t forced to think of overcoming a challenge because one didn’t exist. 

Our first Apollo mission didn’t even reach final countdown. Unfortunately the three finest astronauts in the world at that time died sitting in their capsule while still “safely” on the ground. When the program administrator was asked by Congress how this happened, he responded saying that we lacked imagination. With all of the terrible tragedies that were presumed standard with space travel, nobody imagined that an electric bus load would start a fire in the capsule while on the ground. We learned from that and our safety measures were refined, and the new insulation measures later saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts. 

It is not imagination alone that makes the space program estimable, but the act of putting it to use.  Surely, we have both imagination and ingenuity here on Earth.  People were writing about space travel prior to its existence when it was thought impossible.  Before it was doable, talking on hands free devices was a common occurrence in science fiction shows.  We all mockingly watched as a doctor from Star Trek used an instrument to diagnose an individual in seconds, something now done in hospitals across the globe on various levels. 

There’s a vast difference between imagining something and doing something, however.  Most of us imagine, but we sit idly and do nothing.  In space travel this isn’t always possible.  Never was that more evident when the Apollo 13 crew sat suspended 200,000 miles away from earth and waited on a ground crew to invent what is now known as “the mailbox” that would be required to get back home from their botched mission.  It was imagination that spurred the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics award for best nuclear and future flight paper to conceptualize a theoretically working “hyperdrive” engine that could get us from here to Mars in a few hours.  Impossible?  Perhaps now. 

To me, the space program is less about exploring the vast unknown of our universe, but instead about exploring the vast unknown of our minds. It isn’t about discovering something out there, but about discovering something within. The space program once made boys believe that nothing was impossible.  When Americans landed on the moon, the world stood by and marveled at what freedom can mature into. But now we have sacked the program, and in some way, sacked a bit of what we call American exceptionalism. We once believed that we could do anything and, when a challenge was deemed impossible, we accepted that it just might be…for anyone who wasn’t American.

Have we put an end to the generations of children who have dreamed of being an astronaut?  Will kindergartners’ pictures of going to the moon and beyond be a renewed science fiction?  Will the minds of Americans accept the confines of this world?  Columbus had the “New World”, Mallory had Everest, and Armstrong had the moon.  Someone from the coming generations will flout the limitations we set forth today as well as a few laws of science.  They will push beyond our imaginations because they will actually have them.  They will, in spite of our efforts to stay grounded, flee this earth and go into the beyond or touch the face of G-d trying.  They might or might not be Americans, but they will surely be exceptional.


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