THE space shuttle Endeavour touched down in Florida early on Monday morning after a successful two-week mission to the international space station.
“Houston, it’s great to be home. It was a great adventure,” Commander George Zamka radioed to Mission Control. But is it – great to be home, I mean?
Or were Zamka’s words an unintentional epitaph to man’s travels beyond the confines of our own planet?
With the shuttle nearing the end of its life and the cancellation by President Obama of plans to revisit the moon by 2010, has homo sapiens effectively been grounded indefinitely? Unless the Chinese or the Indians demonstrate more daring than the west, it’s certainly beginning to look that way.
I was three weeks old when Apollo 17 landed on the moon in December 1972 and no one has been back since. Now, frankly, I’m beginning to wonder if I will live to see us ever return there.
For the past 40 years, our attitudes to space have reflected how we view ourselves on earth.
In more confident, self-assured times, space was seen as a frontier to be conquered, and the first moon landing of 1969 as a high point of human achievement. Today space is seen as scary. We look to the heavens and shudder at the thought of what might fall out of them.
Society is increasingly uncomfortable with taking risks, with anything that smacks of uncertainty. In our cautious, risk-averse age, talk about conquering the stars leads to widespread speculation about whether it’s worth it – with many questioning why we would go on a six-month journey 35 million miles to Mars when there is no way of telling what might happen.
But if Columbus had applied this safety-first principle to boldly going, maybe America wouldn’t exist in the first place. Exploration, discovery and heading into uncharted waters (or space) is always a risky business, but the alternative is to stay at home and do something more boring instead, to stare at the skies and wonder what might fall down upon us.
Some commentators have raised the spectre of man polluting the moon and Mars. One suggests that instead of polluting other planets, perhaps we could spend money instead on repairing the environmental damage we have caused on earth.
Quite how man could pollute Mars any more than it already is – with hostile weather conditions and toxic gases – is unclear. Others have suggested that going to Mars – and even going back to the moon where man hasn’t set foot since 1972 – is to take an unjustifiable risk. Space, far from being seen as something to be explored and perhaps developed by humans, is seen as a threat to our very existence.
One of the most widespread responses to plans to return to space is that the billions should be spent on better things on Earth; we should use it to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, to feed the poor of Africa. But behind these heartstring-tugging demands for space money to go to worthier causes lurks a deeper hostility to development and exploration for their own sakes – to the idea that conquering new territory is of a deeper intellectual (as well as practical) benefit to mankind.
These attitudes reveal a limited view of humanity. We seem to see ourselves as polluters rather than developers ... as fragile creatures at risk from falling asteroids rather than history-making explorers ... as a people with far too many practical problems on earth to have time to think about the moon or Mars.
In short, we should know our place in the universe, and stick to it. Travelling to the moon goes against the grain today. We’re supposed to be restrained, worried about preserving this planet.
In contrast, moon exploration suggests expansion, not retraction – not only handling earth but confidently going forward to conquer, and prosper on, new planets too.
How things have changed. The race into space between the USA and the Soviet Union became a symbol not only of technological prowess, but of the battle for the hearts and minds of the world. America won. In 1969, an estimated half a billion people watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking that giant leap for mankind.
Now in its sixth decade, NASA is very different from what it was in its youth. The unfettered funding it enjoyed during the Cold War has long since dried up. Its missions have grown modest. It has suffered disasters with the space shuttle and other missions. The fiery pioneering spirit has given way to a day-to-day battle for survival.
In an era of philistinism and political low horizons, space travel is increasingly seen as a curious blip of the apparently overly positive culture of the 1950s and the 1960s, probably a mistake, and certainly something we shouldn’t be bothered with today.
Problems on earth certainly need to be addressed. But to want to go into space is human. It is good in itself, an expression of humanity’s desire to conquer the unknown, discover more about our universe and work together to achieve monumental goals.
Yet facts are not the main way to combat scepticism about space. Who can say, at this stage, what the long-term benefits of space missions will be? As Einstein is supposed to have said, with his usual wit: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”
At the end of last year, NASA announced an astounding discovery: gallons and gallons of water on the moon. Unfortunately, the discovery in itself will not win the argument to invest in space again – to do that, we need to tackle the generally low horizons that exist.
Of course we should go back to the moon and Mars and then venture even further. But there are arguments to be won here on earth if people are going to see those as positive, or even realistic, goals.
IT will be a battle for hearts as well as minds. If we are to avoid being confined to base, we space enthusiasts have to get people excited about space exploration again. Children need to be taken to Ireland’s two planetaria and shown the wonders of the universe.
We have to take them outside on clear nights and show them the craters of the moon, the rings of Saturn and the ice caps of Mars. We have to show them the International Space Station as it sails overhead, explaining to them, “there are people on that star”.
We are a curious species, always wanting to know what is over the next hill, around the next corner, on the next island. And we have been that way for thousands of years.
The moon has always been a source of inspiration for scientists, writers, poets and artists alike – not only because it is a thing of beauty, but because it is a way for us to talk about human aspirations and our capacity to surprise ourselves with our discoveries.
Of course going to space is dangerous but that’s the whole point of it. President Kennedy was spot on when he said: “We choose to go to the moon and do other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”