The entire world was entranced and amazed by the first moon landing on July 20, 1969.
President John F. Kennedy’s promise less than a decade earlier to put men on the moon had been fulfilled with the landing of Apollo 11, enshrining astronaut Neil Armstrong’s name forever as the first human being to set foot on another world. Future Apollo missions continued until Apollo 17 returned on Dec. 19, 1972.
No human being has ventured beyond Earth orbit since.
Now, the last space shuttle, Atlantis, is scheduled to make its final voyage July 8, leaving only the Russian Soyuz as a means of taking people and cargo to the International Space Station.
While various plans have been floated to create a new breed of rockets to return to the moon, this time permanently, and then launch a manned mission to Mars (the most Earthlike of the other planets), no one really knows when or how that will happen.
The shuttle program, using a vehicle designed in the 1970s, has clearly long outlived its useful lifespan, and over that time grew increasingly unsafe, with two accidents resulting in the deaths of 14 crew, including two foreign astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher.
MOVING TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR
The focus of manned space travel appears to be moving to the private sector, where efforts to produce cargo lift and tourism-related capabilities (including “space hotels”) seem to be nearing some level of success.
The reasons for the current hiatus on new missions to deep space are complex, involving politics, national security and competing demands on limited funding, and yet one reason stands out: While there is money to be made in orbit, nobody has yet found a way to make a profit from travel to the moon or the planets.
The logic of space exploration, then, tracks the logic of human migration and colonization from the earliest annals of recorded history. People will find a way to go where they can find new resources to improve their lives.
Sometimes they have removed those resources to bring them back to their original homes, and sometimes they have settled in the new lands they discovered (often displacing the former occupants, if there were any) to create new societies where a chance to prosper presented itself.
Space is no different, because people are no different now than they have ever been. Where money can be made — primarily from satellite communications, photographs and location-finding services — that part of space called NEO, for “near Earth orbit,” is crowded with satellites out to about 23,000 miles from the surface. That’s the distance where “geosynchronous” satellites can orbit at the same speed as the planet’s rotation, thus remaining above the same spot on the ground 24 hours a day, a valuable feature for many purposes.
Beyond profit, two other motives provide a spur for the publicly funded exploration and exploitation of space.
The first is pure science, the human drive for discovery of things that are not known. Science is served by the many satellites, like those that map the planet and provide detailed photos of its terrain, to the sun-observing satellites that teach us about our closest star and warn us of its foibles, to the Hubble space telescope and its fantastic photos of objects millions of light-years away, to the Spitzer and Chandra infrared and X-ray telescopes, to the Kepler telescope in its solar orbit that has discovered hundreds of extrasolar planets.
A larger and more capable successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is set for launch in a few years and will undoubtedly reveal more marvels.
Then there are the space probes, from Voyager to Pioneer to Cassini to Galileo to Mariner — and many more launched by this nation and others — that have showed us much about the planets, moons, asteroids and comets that populate our solar system.
The second is national defense, which was the spur for the GPS system and nuclear launch warning satellites, and today includes a large number of other satellites, many with secret missions, that fill the sky above us. So far, we have avoided placing actual weapons in space, although that possibility remains a constant danger.
FUTURE OF SPACE TRAVEL CLOUDY
Will our nation, either by itself or with others, ever produce the systems capable of returning people to the moon or exploring other planets?
Even though we have all the knowledge we need to launch such missions, they will be expensive and, at least as of today, have scant hope of producing any returns beyond those of pure science — which, many argue, can be accomplished by much less costly robotic, unmanned probes in the future as they have in the past.
Yet, there remains within the human spirit the desire to “see what lies beyond,” and that effort has never been without risk. It may well be time to let entrepreneurs bear a much larger share of the risk and the cost for missions that cannot satisfy scientific or national security goals with robotic satellites and probes.
“To boldly go” where no one has gone before is a wonderful goal. We should let those who value it most accomplish it — if and when (and how) they can.