The future of space


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“We Came in Peace for All Mankind” reads the last sentence of the inscription on a plaque resting in the vast white expanse of the Sea of Tranquility. The Apollo 11 crew placed the plaque on the lunar surface more than 40 years ago. In those days, a president’s promise lifted America’s eyes skyward, and a bipolar space race fueled imaginations and a sense of shared identity.

Since that era, however, space exploration has drifted from the public discourse. Most Americans’ minds are justifiably occupied with more immediate issues than anything involving rockets and satellites. NASA projects such as a manned base on Mars won’t help Iowans find jobs, provide the uninsured with health care, or affect which age group is allowed into bars.

But the importance of space exploration hasn’t abated. The benefits and consequences of space exploration are of substantial national interest, and the federal government needs to continue to guide and fund America’s space exploration and research.

President Obama recently signed the NASA Space Exploration Act in law. The act is a product of a new era of space exploration, which will focus on developing manned spaceflight into deeper and deeper areas of space.

Proponents of the space program consistently cite the various technological advances born from NASA projects that have improved our daily lives. For this reason, the return on investment in many space exploration programs is often high.

NASA maintains an online “spinoffs database” that lists products and innovations resulting from its research. The challenges of effectively recycling water in space led to far more advanced water-filtration systems on Earth. Robotics technology used on space shuttles is now used in artificial limbs. Light sleepers everywhere can thank NASA for the comfortable “Tempur-Pedic” foam mattress, which has the added benefit of allowing you to place a wineglass on your sheets, then jump on your bed without spilling it. (Arguably unimportant but unquestionably impressive.)

All of these breakthroughs may have been possible in areas of research besides space exploration, but the utility of these secondary effects is clear.

Besides the relatively immediate effect of aerospace research, we must emphasize space exploration if we intend to be forward-thinking. The reality is, humanity cannot plan on remaining on Earth forever.

The world’s most famous astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, said earlier this year it’s “not wise for the human race to put all of its eggs in one basket or on one planet.” Astronomers are now able to use high-powered telescopes to find “goldilocks” planets that are ideal for human life. The only hurdle — albeit a massive and complex one — is getting there.

Beyond these tangible benefits of a well-funded space program are the intangibles, which are too often quickly dismissed as romantic. Curiosity is ingrained in human nature, and the ability to recognize goals greater than ourselves is a vital part of humanity. Americans everywhere felt proud when Aldrin and Armstrong planted the flag in the lunar soil, the same flag flying on Earth outside post offices and schools.

The sense of accomplishment from putting astronauts on the Moon, mapping Saturn’s rings, and launching the Voyager spacecraft on an open-ended exit from our Solar System is not trivial.

The human race as a whole is improved by these extraordinary achievements, which can be funded by a relatively modest federal investment. It would be a denial of our own ability and potential as a species if we stopped reaching higher.

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