TO INFINITY AND … nevermind

I was in the first grade when Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off from Cape Canaveral. I think I remember watching when Challenger went up, giving rise to dozens of callous jokes about how Krista McCauliff’s eyes were blue. The Right Stuff is one of my favorite movies of all time. When I was a kid, my parents found for me somewhere a book with schematics of the space shuttle Discovery, and I spent scores of hours poring over the diagrams and plotting my eventual course into space. The idea that something incredible was out there has never released its grip on my psyche.

The cruel truth is that we can’t all be astronauts (or cowboys, or victorious generals, or gynecologists). When it comes down to it, there have only been about 500 people who have been above the Karman Line since Yuri Gegarin first strapped his ass to a candle. I’ve grown up, as many of us, living vicariously through the people that actually do have the eyesight, the training, the career foresight and the testicular fortitude to go into space. If anyone ever offered me the chance to go into space, I would do it without a moment’s hesitation – I’m cautious, but that’s terrestrial. The opportunity to blast off in a rocket would be a culmination of any adventurous spirit I’ve ever contemplated. The possibility of not coming back would not change my decision.

I didn’t live through the Apollo program, which I regret. For sure, I’d have “liked” it on Facebook. The closest thing in my lifetime to an inspiring celestial mandate was George Bush in 2004 when he said that we were going to go to Mars. His announcement of that goal fell a little flat, as I recall, because it was a spendthrift President offering to spend many more billions when the economy was nose-diving and he’d already spent his allowance. Barack Obama rolled back our expectations early on, looking for fat to trim from the budget … so he could spend trillions on other things. I have to say, it’s honestly one of the most disappointing things about his presidency for me.

So a manned mission to Mars is out for now. I’m slightly mollified by Congress’s vote this past week to continue the space shuttle program for another year, but I don’t think there should even be a debate about whether to keep sending people into space on an year-by-year basis.

I suppose one of my questions is, Do we have to analyze every single thing on which we spend money from a strict utilitarian point of view? In light of the arguable corruption at top government levels and inarguable wastes of money throughout our annual budgets, does bringing back a rock that has been in outer space have to make us money? If your answer to that is yes, then let’s look at the innovations that have come out of the space program. For starters: flame retardent cloth and tiles, velcro, teflon. There are dozens or hundreds of things for which we have everyday terrestrial applications, that we wouldn’t have come up with if we didn’t need to seal spacesuits or survive reentry. Know what else gives rise to a lot of inventions? War. I think there’s a reason we keep making that.

There’s a bigger picture at work here, though. I hadn’t intended to go all Star Trek with this concept, but space is the final frontier. It’s where very few have gotten to go but we feel a primal urge to be. Visitors from other planets are 75% of the stories our best fictional (and non-fictional) imaginations have conceived. Passing between the stars is a thought that tickles us when we’re young and lying on our backs around a campfire, a feeling our first kiss gives us when we look up for lack of anything better on which to focus, a fascination for us when we begin to learn the real physics of the universe and the truly remarkable uses to which we could put our technology.

Sending people into space has always struck me as validation of the potential of our species. We should go to infinity and beyond for a host of practical reasons, but mostly because we can. The courage to travel beyond our environment and the thirst to know more about our place in things should drive us. The Captain of the space shuttle should be more famous for his/her leadership and courage than the quarterback of your local NFL team or the winner of The Amazing Race. The engineers at NASA should be at least as famous for their genius, as dotcom millionaires or authors of mass-consumption literature. We should be clamoring of our leaders for everything that space could teach us and inspire us to do. Give NASA whatever they ask for.

Besides, when you stop to think about it, can we afford to have thousands of rocket scientists running around with nothing to do? Quitting or downsizing the space program may spawn a whole new generation of super-villains. Delays in going to Mars reduce our chances of stopping Marvin the Martian from obliterating the Earth for obstructing his view of Venus. It will also be a lot longer before we have legions of stormtroopers, and domination of the Universe is going to be a lot tougher without them.

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