There's a certain picture that captivates me every time I look at it. It's what you might call a professional landscape shot - a photo of a rocky cliff with an arid desert plain stretching far into the distance behind it. Jagged fawn brown rocks litter the ground, matching the rough cliff side and complementing the much darker brown of the soil. The sky has a soupy olive green tint that singlehandedly gives the landscape an otherworldly appearance. As a whole, the photograph depicts a dark and uninviting wasteland, utterly devoid of vibrant colors and horribly stark in its appearance.
Why would I find such a picture so captivating? Because it is a richly detailed, full color photo of Victoria Crater on Mars. To me, this desolate landscape is wondrous. It is something that, until a few short years ago, human eyes had never seen. I imagine myself quietly strolling along the Martian surface, taking in the barren terrain with an impossible to contain fascination and curiosity. I see myself picking up a stone from the rocky ground, turning it over in my heavily insulated hands and marveling at something normally so mundane - just one of quadrillions upon quadrillions of rocks scattered along the surface. While holding the innocuous rock, I would slowly start to shuffle my feet, gradually, deliberately turning myself in place in order to take in all three hundred and sixty degrees of the strange, eerily beautiful horizon, all the while wishing I could discard my protective spacesuit and experience the Martian surface with every one of my senses. Maybe not taste.
Unfortunately, very few people seem interested in space exploration any longer. Once the main driving force, politicians are now practically silent on the matter. The space shuttle is a dangerous relic of the 1980s, and sadly, there has been no push to replace it with a safer space faring vehicle that can escape the earth's atmosphere without being propelled by what is essentially two gigantic simultaneous controlled explosions. Once an exciting multinational venture, the international space station is now little more than a very expensive scientific retreat lingering in earth’s orbit, mostly forgotten by those outside the scientific community. The Constellation program that was supposed to put people back on the moon has been cancelled, and plans for any manned mission to Mars are in limbo at best.
How did we come to this? How did we go from exploring the final frontier with all the determination and gusto of a Captain Kirk to determining that NASA’s primary mission is to validate the Muslim world’s contributions to science, math and engineering? As absurd as that last part may sound, it’s true. During an interview with al-Jazeera, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that under President Obama’s direction, his duty as administrator that is “perhaps foremost” on his list is “to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to... science and math and engineering."
Wow. NASA is apparently no longer in the space exploration business. It now appears to be in the hand holding business. Well, if nothing else, I suppose it is less laborious and less expensive to say “good job” and “you rock with that science stuff you’re doing over there” to a bunch of Muslim nations than it is to work toward more manned exploration of the cosmos. So now I guess we’ll have to say goodbye to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and hello to the new National Appeasement and Suck-up Administration.
John F. Kennedy must be rolling in his grave.
While he was still alive, President Kennedy seemed excited, even quietly ecstatic about the prospects of human space travel, and he wanted his fellow Americans to be as enthusiastic about it as he was. In 1962, he gave us his very own great commission to the stars, a resounding proclamation that America would gladly embrace the challenges of space exploration. And why shouldn't we? Other than some caves and the ocean floor, there isn't much left to explore on this tiny planet we call home. Every land mass is mapped, every habitable section of the globe is settled, and personal exploration of most areas is just a passport and a plane ride away.
Over time, such familiarity with our own world can become a problem, especially as international travel becomes faster, easier, and less costly. With nothing left to explore, nothing left to discover, our attentions naturally turn back toward ourselves. A sense develops that what we know of earth is all there is to life, so we'd better just hunker down, fight for this world's limited resources, and take as much of earth's bounty as possible for ourselves. A gaze that should be turned outward all too easily gets turned inward, and we forget that, actually, our exploration of reality has barely even begun.
Earth is a tiny planet, one of eight (sorry, Pluto) orbiting a star of moderate size. This star system with its eight planets is an incredibly miniscule part of our Milky Way Galaxy, a galaxy that is approximately 100,000 light years across and is thought to contain at least 200 billion stars. There's no telling how many planets may be orbiting some or most of those stars. And of all those potentially billions of planets, there may be one, or a few, or several, or hundreds, or thousands that support life as we know it, or even life as we don't know it. Now multiply those possibilities by the more than 100 billion galaxies that we are able to observe in the incredibly vast cosmos.
Take all of that into account, and our one little planet is only the beginning. It is but a launch pad to the rest of our solar system, the rest of our galaxy, and the rest of the universe.
It's difficult to speculate on President Kennedy's motivations for giving that rousing speech all those years ago. Perhaps he just wanted America to be number one in the new space race. Maybe he just wanted us to go to the moon for the incredible accomplishment such a feat would be for humanity. But I think John Kennedy may have had something else in mind.
"But I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind. And its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again." - John F. Kennedy at Rice University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962
In space exploration, I think President Kennedy saw a grand opportunity for a sweeping change in humanity; he perhaps hoped that people around the world would eventually set aside their conflicts and reach toward a common goal of exploring the awe-inspiring unknown beyond the sky. In short, he may have hoped the people of the world would become explorers.
And by that, I'm referring to exploration in its purest form - exploration to experience what's out there, to see new and amazing places simply because they have yet to be seen. That sort of natural curiosity can drive us all to work together to explore the great unknown, if only we'll let it - if only we'll come outside ourselves and look to the stars, and then look to each other for innovative ways to travel to those stars.
The term "world peace" has become something of an international joke, relegated to the wish lists of hopeful elementary school children. But it's something that can be realized. In my opinion, there is no surer path to peace than shared interest, and space exploration should be the ultimate shared interest, as it is an interest that transcends all political concerns and gets at the very heart of every religion on earth. If you believe in God, then you know that what you're seeing out there is God's vast, beautiful, astounding, and utterly fascinating creation, and that alone should provide every believer on earth with the drive to see and experience as much of it as possible.
Remember the picture of the Martian surface I mentioned at the beginning? That picture appeared in the November 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine entitled 'Space: The Once and Future Frontier'. I suppose the magazine's editors didn't consider space the current frontier because, at least for now, space exploration is a thing of the past, replaced in our social consciousness by wars, economic upheaval, and an overload of digital entertainment.
But we can bring it back into the present. We can reach for the stars and bring out the very best in ourselves in the process. We can work together toward a post-war society in which the quest for knowledge and a collaborative spirit reign supreme.
But really, a post-war society? Nations peacefully collaborating to explore the final frontier, with curiosity and the thirst for knowledge as the only motivating factors? That's impossible, right? Once upon a time, so was space travel.