Back into Space
The last time a human being walked on the Moon was in 1972. Close to half of the U.S. population has been born since then. It therefore falls to people over the age of 50 to recall the incredible excitement and sense of discovery and adventure that was the NASA Space program up to that year. There were few things in my lifetime that both excited and united humanity as much as the first 15 years of space exploration that started with Sputnik in 1957. I remember the day when John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth and how there were transistor radios everywhere at school, and even the teachers devoted time during class for us to listen in on the news reports of this journey. I remember when Neal Armstrong first set foot on the Moon. The whole world was watching as a member of our species did something that had never been done before.
Discussions of space exploration are now back in the news. Recently, in just a matter of days NASA announced first that it was firming up plans for Americaâ€™s return to the Moon and then, days later, the startling discovery that water had flowed on the surface of Mars within the past seven years. Days later a crew went into space to work at and on the space station. It was kind of triple hit of space news that brought back to mind the great adventure of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Sure the space shuttles of the past decades have been exciting, but they have not captured the attention and imagination of all of us here on earth the way the early first two decades of space exploration did.
It is now time to start moving toward another major space exploration effort. We need to create the vision, set the goals and mobilize the national will to again leave the gravitation pull of our planet. The United States needs to assume leadership of this effort and at the same time realize that it is a perfect vehicle for a unified global effort. This time there is no â€˜space raceâ€™ with the Soviet Union to goad us on. We need to lead the way, create a vision, create an international cooperative entity and mobilize for the effort. The United States has lost a lot of respect around the world due to its invasion of Iraq. A new space initiative can provide us with the needed vehicle to reestablish a leadership position that taps into the wonder, vision and possibilities of this new adventure. Take a position of leadership and ask the world to join us.
One of the speeches I give that always provokes a responsive discussion is called â€œLeading with Vision, Being Slightly Ahead of the Curveâ€. One of the examples I use is John F. Kennedy saying in 1961 that before the decade is out, America will put a man on the Moon and bring him safely back to Earth. This was said even before Glenn had orbited Earth. Making such a bold statement was unheard of; people didnâ€™t know if it was possible or not. Eight years later, six months before the end of the decade, we did exactly what President Kennedy challenged the country to do. Set the vision, break it down into steps and improve on each accomplishment. The entire country was mobilized, technology and materials we take for granted today were created during this amazing time. Granted, once we got there, we lost our way and ended up hitting golf balls, but that was because we had only the vision to get there and safely return. No one had created a vision to take us beyond what we had accomplished.
We may well need new leadership to mobilize us around a new vision. We will need to spend a lot of money. There is always the discussion around whether money should be spent on space exploration or solving the problems here on Earth. I truly believe that a new American lead program to put an outpost on the Moon and journey to Mars will bring humanity together in a way that nothing else can. That starts to solve problems. Certainly scientific advances will occur that will have benefit on Earth. As for cost, the current annual budget of NASA is the equivalent of slightly less than two months of military expenditures in Iraq. In the long run, which do you think will add the most to humanity, policing a civil war or exploring space?
If we can develop the political will, if we can see space exploration as a way to again create visionary leadership, if we can make it a globally inclusive effort, we can find a way to fund it and can challenge the scientific world to make it a reality. The questions should not be about if, but about how and when.