Now is a good time to reflect on the legacy of the original Space Race. That era culminated for many when the United States ‘won’ that round of the Cold War with the Soviet Union by landing a man on the Moon (“and returning him safely to the Earth” in the words of President Kennedy).
Since the time of NASA’s six successful landings on the Moon (1969-72), we’ve watched the agency’s human spaceflight program become trimmed, attenuated, constricted to near-Earth orbit for 30 years with the Shuttle, and now — under President Obama’s confusing space policy — virtually decimated.
They are many reasons to go into space — both practical and philosophical. Let’s look at an aspect of the practical. A nation that dreams big, innovates immensely. One reason that so many jobs have been outsourced from America over the past two decades is because the rest of the world has caught up; they can do what we do. And they’re willing to do it for less.
Innovation — by its very definition — cannot be outsourced, because it involves finding new solutions to problems didn’t even exist yesterday. That is what occurred in the wake of Sputnik in 1957: an entire generation was inspired to seek careers in science and technology. That wave of passion for the Future didn’t subside until the 80′s — as the last children to watch the Moon landings graduated from college.
What are the factors that might sway public sentiment to look to the heavens again? Perhaps, it will be national pride. China has declared it will land humans on the Moon by the end of the decade.
This is the same timeframe that Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has chalked in for the US to have a functional Moon base. Maybe the simple longing to remain the best at a past glory can stir the citizens’ collective imagination. Or not.
What about the profit motive? We are talking about Americans here; they value free markets and capitalism above all else. On this front, there’s hope. Perhaps a unique partnership of private corporations and government-endorsed objectives can take the nation into space again.
The idea is promoted by Richard Garriot de Cayeux, writing for the Huffington Post:
Why travel into space and why should taxpayers pay for humans to travel beyond Earth?
Because this exploration will return direct economic value beyond exploration, in areas such as energy and minerals. Also, it will create microgravity research in fields such as biology where medicinal drugs and vaccines are already proving to be quite promising.
I encourage you to read more of his article. I think the author’s a bit too optimistic that the private sector will jump into the deep water by themselves.
We still need a national consensus, an overarching mandate, that penetrates every level of society. A space race like the 1960′s requires an immense infrastructure that includes education, corporations, and NASA. Ultimately, it requires an entire nation.