Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A New Space Race?

As a child of the 50’s and a young adult of the 60’s, the NASA space program was always front and center for me. The men (no women at that point) of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs pushed the limits of human endurance and skill to engage the challenges of space.

This week we have observed the 40th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon. Crew members Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were celebrated at gatherings in Washington this week and urged President Obama to pursue the next great adventure—manned exploration of Mars. At this point, the President appears reluctant to undertake this task.

Manned flight to the moon and Mars offer significant benefits for our nation and humankind. At this point about one cent for every taxpayer dollar goes into the space program, much less than we put into the military. In the face of other pressing needs such as healthcare, why should we spend money on this venture?

First, manned spaceflight offers immediate technological results that can help us as we deal with health, environmental, and lifestyle issues on the earth. The early space program had both commercial and lifestyle consequences for our quality of life over the last five decades. One result is that there is more computing power in one cell phone today than in the computer on the Eagle lunar module of 1969!

Second, humankind needs new challenges. Exploration has always pushed us to stretch ourselves. Although there are places on the earth that are still unknown territory (under the sea, for one), we should not turn our backs on space exploration and the long term implications it has for us.

Third, manned space exploration provides opportunities for international cooperation. Although the “space race” was born out of Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, we now find ourselves cooperating with Russia and other nations in the operation of the International Space Station. This same pattern can be used for new missions the moon and Mars.

Unfortunately, it may take another “space race” to put the United States back into the manned exploration mode. If we continue to see other nations, especially China, expand their manned spaceflight programs, our government may finally see the need to invest in new voyages to the moon and Mars. That’s politics and that may be the only thing that moves us forward in manned space exploration.

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