Playing in Our Backyard

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on De...

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, showing the Earth seemingly rising above the lunar surface. Note that this phenomenon is only visible from someone in orbit around the Moon. Because of the Moon’s synchronous rotation about the Earth (i.e., the same side of the Moon is always facing the Earth), no Earthrise can be observed by a stationary observer on the surface of the Moon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The other day I had an interesting conversation with my friend Taylor. Excited at the possibility of our being able to collect on some of the money in tax havens exposed by hackers (provided enough Americans get riled up enough to demand action) I started dreaming about some of the things that could be done if we could even tax that money at a ten percent rate (which is a good reason for the aforementioned riling up.) Instead of a deficit we’d have a fairly large surplus, without even cutting any programs. We could convince people that there is no good financial reason to NOT implement Single Payer Health Care (there isn’t anyway, but it is harder for them to argue when there is a half trillion dollar surplus, and keep in mind that is if we only collect 10%, if we were being fair, it should be more.) We could also, and this is something I was very excited about and where our conversation began, really kick off our space program again. Mission to Mars baby!

This is where we began to respectfully disagree. Taylor wants to see other countries put more into the effort to explore space. He thinks we have already put in enough and that we should not be worrying about putting more in when we are running a deficit. I am inclined to think otherwise, even after ignoring the fact that my excitement stemmed from potential surpluses. Space exploration has scientific, cultural and economic (stemming from the scientific) benefits that make the expense worthwhile. They also have an enormous, wide-spread psychological benefit for our entire species.

I suspect some of our difference of opinion stems from our small generational difference. I am ten years older than Taylor. For him, his earliest memories of the space program are the Challenger disaster and the long, quiet years in space exploration after that. I was only one when the last Apollo mission was flown, but we basked in the after glow of our lunar visits for the entire decade after that. When I was a young kid people my age were still putting up posters of the Apollo 11 crew on their walls. The shuttle program was just getting kicked off.

Most the folks who go into space speak of how the event transforms them, especially the guys who went to the moon. You look at the Earth from a distance, with your own eyes, not from a photograph taken by a robot, and you realize how small, yet still amazing we are. You look out at everything beyond and cannot help but be excited at the prospect of touching just some small part of it. I still look up at the sky and dream. I am getting too long in the tooth, and have made too many of the wrong choices, to ever be out there, yet I am still prone to wish for it. To walk Mars with my own feet, to look on the Jovian moons with my own eyes, and to feel the vessel accelerating ever faster, those would be experiences worth any risk.

We likely never reach another star in even our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s lifetimes. We can, however, play in our own cosmic backyard more than we have been. There is so much to see, so much to learn and so much to be. We could be unified, in our discovery and in our new understanding that we share a common origin on a tiny, beautiful, blue gem in the jewel that is our solar system.

There are many problems that desperately require our attention here on Earth. I understand Taylor’s reticence for those reasons alone. I do believe, and maybe this is the closest thing to faith I have, that if we were to expand on that experience of oneness that space exploration brings we could go a long way toward solving those problems. Maybe I watch too much Star Trek, but there are worse ideas to pin your hopes on. I will keep dreaming that silly, little dream, looking up at the stars, and hoping we get our act together enough to share our backyard together.




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