Why We Left Earth

Outer space has always been a mystery. Even before mankind fully grasped its vastness, they wanted to go there. Early astronomers, fascinated by the stars, invented ways to get a closer view. Think Copernicus, Galileo, Cassini. Writers not content with being earthbound blasted off in their books. Jules Verne. H. G. Wells. Even Edgar Allan Poe took a literary trip to the moon. Then film came along, allowing a new breed of artists to visualize space travel. (Georges Méliès, anyone?)

By the time the 1950s rolled around, technology was advanced enough to shoot satellites into orbit. Monkeys, then man, followed. Launches were common. Astronauts became rock stars. And a clean-cut test pilot named Neil Armstrong took that first small step on the moon. Science fiction had been replaced by science fact, fantasy had suddenly become reality.

It was fun while it lasted.

In a sad coincidence, NASA’s space shuttle program is scheduled to come to a close near the anniversary of Armstrong’s historic steps. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility. On July 21, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis will touch down on an apathetic Earth. The missions — NASA’s brash yelp of victory in the space race and its wistful final breath — will bookend forty-two years of U.S. space exploration.

Some will say it was all worth it. Others will call it a waste of time, money and, tragically, American lives.

There has always been a debate about the merits of space exploration. In the July 21, 1969, edition of The New York Times, Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying, “It means nothing to me.” Charles Lindbergh, in that same edition, said, “It is of tremendous importance.” Similar statements will no doubt be uttered as NASA, other nations and even for-profit entities plan for the future. But whether one is for or against exploring the stars, it’s easy to understand why man has always been interested in going to space.

The answer is a simple one. Because it is there.

Space has been and will always be a tantalizing mystery, mostly because it’s close enough to see, but perpetually out of reach. We can watch stars wink into view on summer evenings. We can chart the moon’s glide across the sky from our bedroom windows. We can notice how the night cedes power to daylight on wintry morning commutes. Nothing makes humans more curious than letting them see something they can’t touch. In fact, it only makes them want it more. Human nature dictates it.

It doesn’t hurt that the view is pretty spectacular. Gazing up at the night sky, one is confronted with infinite possibilities — and infinite questions. Billions and billions of them, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. How many stars are there? How close are they? What’s beyond them? More stars? More galaxies? Life other than our own? What is out there?

At one time or another, Galileo, Verne and Méliès probably all asked themselves those same questions. Their progeny, armed with the luxury of advances in science and technology, sought the answers. So we got Edwin Hubble, Isaac Asimov and George Lucas, marching beyond their forebears. We got Star Trek and Spielberg. We got E.T. and Tomorrowland.

And we got NASA, of course, that group of guys in short-sleeved shirts and Buddy Holly glasses sending modern-day cowboys into space on bucking broncos fueled by fire. Once they got there, whether by Apollo lunar module or space shuttle, those brave men and women discovered more space, more questions, more possibilities. Just when one milestone was reached, we saw more that could be achieved. That needed to be achieved. Which begs the question, why continue to explore space when we know we can’t possibly see it all?

Again, because it is there. Or, put more poetically by President John F. Kennedy during his famous 1962 speech at Rice University, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again.”

And that’s the ultimate allure of outer space. It’s what has fascinated all those astronomers and writers and artists since the beginning of time. The mystery isn’t what we’ll discover out there among the stars. It’s how we’ll react when we find it. Space travel isn’t really about space. It’s about mankind, more vast and unknowable than any galaxy. To explore the heavens is to explore the hopes and the dreams of those of us on earth.

Rod McKuen put it best in the same edition of The New York Times in which Lindbergh and Picasso sounded off. “If we can reach other worlds so easily,” he wrote, “we might soon come to understand our own.”

Posted on by Todd Posted in Featured, Musings

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