03 February 2013


This morning, as is my habit on Sundays, I was listening to Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me! , a news quiz in game show format on NPR, while doing my daily physical therapy.  The special guest contestant was Mae Jemison, a physician and astronaut who was the first black woman to travel in space (1992).  This remarkable woman holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities.

Near the end of her participation, she revealed that among many other commitments, she is actively involved in a NASA project called 100 Year Starship, whose aim is to achieve interstellar travel within the next century.

Intrigued, I visited the website.  The project's mission statement points out that ~
  • Pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow will create a better world today.
  • Technologies created for ~ and made possible by ~ space exploration permeate, shape, and are an integral part of our world.
  • The capabilities needed to accomplish human interstellar travel are the same ones required for successful human survival on Earth, as well as for the exploration of our solar system.
I am a child of the space age.  I was ten years old when the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the very first orbiting satellite.  Along with the rest of the world, I paid rapt attention to our subsequent voyages into space, including humans orbiting the earth and journeying to the moon (less than 100 years after science fiction writer Jules Verne first wrote about a manned moon landing), as well as all the robotic survey missions to the planets, their moons, the sun, and beyond the solar system.  

The thrill of those years was not allowed to flourish.  After the final moon landing, the next logical step would have been turning our attention to manned missions to other planets.  Instead, we pulled into our shell and contented ourselves with Earth-orbiting space shuttle missions, orbiting deep space telescopes and the international space station, and robotic solar system survey missions.  As valuable as each of these projects has been, none can substitute for an actual human presence at the helm.

The flame of space exploration flickered, but it did not die.  Visionaries like those at 100 Year Starship understand that in addition to the material benefits gained from space exploration (GPS, remote sensing, weather satellites, light-weight materials, device miniaturization, new medical procedures, the accelerated development of communications and computer software and hardware, and on and on), it is equally important to engage the human spirit and imagination.  

When the first man set foot on the moon, people in nations all around the world celebrated wildly.  We were united in our humanity.  A common purpose helps us to transcend our differences, and enriches us all.  It is time to re-engage, to lift our eyes once more toward the stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment