Yuri's Night

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Postby Helios » Wed Apr 13, 2011 2:22 am

I’m going to make this as simple as possible. We didn’t win the space race. In that regard we didn’t lose either, and the Russians never beat us or took 2nd. The space race was a DNF for mankind.

It may be true that 50 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, 41 years ago Apollo 13 was on its way to the Moon, and 30 years ago the Space Shuttle Columbia took to the skies for the first time. It may also be true that in the 50 years of human space flight, all we have to show for our efforts is 6 flags on the Moon and a couple stations in Earth orbit. These achievements are remarkable, but overall the vast oceans of the universe still remain unknown and unexplored.

Throughout our history, we have been a race of explorers. We have pushed ourselves to our limits in an effort to better understand the world around us and our place in it. There are those among us who are unwilling to make the effort, choosing instead to believe the universe is controlled by magical forces for which there’s no good evidence, instead of making the effort to better understand why things are the way they are. Perhaps this is why people often take a hostile attitude towards science; it can be difficult to grasp the concepts that shape the universe of which we live in, and it may cause deeply held beliefs to suddenly be disproven, but this is all a part of the scientific method; throwing out old tales of superstition and replacing them with hard evidence that enhances our knowledge and understanding of the universe. As Carl Sagan once said, “our preferences do not determine what is true.”

In 1957 we launched the first spacecraft into orbit around the Earth. In 1961 man took his first steps into the cosmic ocean, and just 8 years later man reached the Moon. The fact that we came so far in just a decade was not a miracle; we just decided to do it. And in the intervening years we have accomplished many feats in our little corner of the universe. We have developed spaceships that can launch into space, fly back to Earth, and go right back up again. Our space stations have established the first permanent human presence in Earth orbit. Satellites now give us an eye in the sky of our home planet, allowing us to better manage our resources and unite the global community. And robot probes have completed a preliminary reconnaissance of the other planets in our Solar System, and several are now heading to the unknown realm that is interstellar space.

And none of these feats were miracles either; we just decided to do them.

But the fact remains that the space race was cut short, we could have and should have done much more in the dawn of this new age of exploration. The plans of NASA and their Russian counterparts fell on deaf ears as popular opinion turned away from the stars. $20 billion to explore another planet may sound like a hefty price tag, but I would argue that the ends justify the means. It is well known now that the argument that space exploration is much more expensive than other social programs here on Earth is a fallacy. The public wanted Apollo canned in order to feed the homeless, eliminate drug use, and get kids off the streets. Well I ask you; in the nearly 40 years that have passed have any of those situations improved? Has the money that NASA supposedly wasted been put to use improving the lives of disadvantaged people?

Another reason for the end of Apollo was stagnation. People didn’t want to go back to the Moon now that America had beaten Russia. Well imagine if the same attitude was prevalent in Spain when Christopher Columbus came back from the new world. Unfortunately this attitude remains in the minds of the people and of our leaders, as evidenced by President Obama’s supposed plan for the US Manned space program that does nothing short of ending manned space exploration for the foreseeable future. Under Obama’s plan NASA is now reduced to a shell of its former self: restricted to funding missions dedicated to researching the half-truth that is Global Warming and managing the ISS. No talk of establishing a base on the Moon or sending crewed missions to Mars (though I do find it ironic that Obama wishes for us to visit an Asteroid. I hope that his Harvard education will allow him to realize that Armageddon was anything but scientifically accurate).

We have done so much in these 50 years but we could have done much more. It saddens me to look back on what could have been and I can only imagine the world that would have benefited from these missions. Let us dream to the extent that NASA continued the Apollo program into the 1970’s, establishing a joint US-Soviet base on the Moon. In the 1980’s manned missions to Venus and Mars are launched for the first time. The inner solar system is colonized by 2011, with missions to Jupiter and Saturn now underway. What would have happened if we went down that route? Would the image of the US government and aerospace contractors have been damaged? Would the people have protested in the streets? Would anything have happened other than that man would have learned new sciences and technologies that could change the future of the species, and therefore the future of the countries? This lost future echoes the world of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series as it should, as I use those (regrettably fictional) novels as a snapshot of a world that could have been. To this day it boggles my mind as to how the public can maintain a hostile attitude towards spaceflight and science, and at the same time praise movies and TV shows like Avatar, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica.

If Yuri Gagarin were alive today I would wonder how he would feel about the progress of spaceflight. I suspect he would be disappointed in the stagnation of manned spaceflight in not just his country but around the world. Gagarin took the first giant leap for mankind, daring to venture out into the unknown. I only hope that in the next 50 years future generations will be inspired to do the same. The final frontier of Space is dangerous no doubt, but we are going to explore it for the same reason that we climb the highest mountain, fly across the Atlantic, or land on the Moon: because it’s there. And as our resources dwindle and our world changes beyond our control, it will soon become a matter of survival.

On April 12, 2011, we as a species stand at a crossroads: we can either live forever in harmony with the universe, or we will die forgotten on a dead planet. This could be the beginning of the end of man’s story on this Earth, or it will be the genesis of a new race: a race that extends to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.

I do not pray for an easy life. I pray to be a stronger bird.
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