In the last hundred years, the human race has gone from being essentially planet-bound to taking its first, tentative steps off the earth. In 1959, the spacecraft Sputnik 1 became the first man-made object to leave earth’s atmosphere. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin of the former Soviet Union became the first human being to leave earth’s atmosphere. These Russian efforts were quickly followed by a crash American space program that, in the following decade, sent unmanned spacecraft as far as Jupiter and put a man on the moon. In the following decades, unmanned spacecraft explored all the planets in the solar system. One unmanned space ship, Voyager, has even left our solar system entirely.
Voyager was not designed to last this long or travel this far, however. It will probably be at least another generation before the human race begins to send space ships intended to explore outside of our solar system. In addition, after its early success putting men on the moon, NASA has retreated to low earth orbit, building the reusable space shuttle and limiting manned space flight to it and a series of low earth orbit space stations.
This is less because of technological limitations than political limitations. Space exploration is expensive, and its benefits aren’t obvious to all people. Not everyone sees the value in exploration for its own sake, or in figuring out how the universe is built and what makes it work just to know, and not necessarily for some other reason. Those who do see the value in knowledge for its own sake usually find it difficult to explain to others why they do because, for them, it’s obvious and needs no explanation.
It’s as if an art lover had to explain his love for Michangelo’s David to someone who saw sculpture as nothing but shaped rocks.
Fortunately for Michelangelo, in a dictatorship or oligarchy (as Florence and most of Italy were when he lived there), you have to convince only one person, or a small group of people, of the value of what you are doing to get your funding. In a democracy, you must convince enough of your fellow citizens that they will support you, and keep them convinced so that they continue to support you through elections, and through recessions. While I infinitely prefer to live in a democracy, and for many reasons, democracies are slower and less efficient in getting anything done, and require a much more from their citizens.
I don’t work in my country’s space program, but I am convinced that space exploration is worth doing, and I want to do my small part to convince you of the same.
- ESA: The European Space Agency
- NASA: The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (United States)
- NASA: Human Spaceflight Center
- JPL: The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Rosaviakosmos: The Russian Space Agency
- Student Space Exploration and Technology Initiative
In addition, I want to encourage privately-funded, non-governmental space flight efforts. On June 21, 2004, Scaled Composites of Mojave, California became the first such private company to put a man into space. It did it again on September 29, 2004. On October 5, 2004 Scaled repeated this feat for the third time, winning the Ansari X-Prize. The X-Prize was a ten million dollar prize offered to the first company to build a spacecraft, fly three people into space, and then repeat the flight within two weeks using the same spacecraft.
Scaled did it in five days. I admit it — I’m impressed. :)
Below are a link to pages I wrote about the June 21 space flight. (I was in the crowd at the airport in Mojave, California.) Beneath my pages are links to pages that a friend, Jeff Chan, and other space nuts put up after they attended one or more of the SpaceShipOne flights. Beneath those links are links to the home pages for the X-Prize Foundation, Scaled Composites, and other X- Prize competitors that I feel bear watching.