Humanity must renew its curiousity in space

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Author: William Stupp

On Sept. 12, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that the Voyager 1 probe had left the boundary of our solar system. The probe has traveled over 12 billion miles since it was launched in 1977 and on Aug. 25, sensors detected a marked change in the density of ionized gas surrounding the probe, a signal that it had left the region known as the heliopause and entered what is referred to as the interstellar medium. Voyager is the first man-made object to accomplish this feat. The news was met with glee from scientists and space enthusiasts across the world. The development received due mention on television and Internet news outlets, but has failed to capture the imagination or even the attention of the public at large. Even as Voyager 1 continues its trailblazing mission into the unknown, space exploration has all but vanished from public consciousness.

The limited response to Voyager’s historical border crossing is a troubling indication of humanity’s disinterest in space travel and exploration. This widespread apathy is not only disappointing, but dangerous for our society, our species and indeed our entire planet. It is not unfathomable that widespread indifference about space exploration could lead to scientific stagnation and eventual extinction. For the benefit of all, citizens and governments of every nation must rediscover their passion for space travel and exploration.

Since the end of the Apollo program, which saw 12 people set foot on the moon from 1968 to 1972, interest in space travel has steadily waned within the United States. Without a passionate public, NASA has tumbled down the ladder of government priorities. The evaporation of public funding for space programs slows down technological progress and reinforced in people’s minds the unwise idea that space was not something worth their time or money.

The picture of the public’s dwindling valuation of space travel can be seen in NASA’s budget. Tempered by the United States-Russian Cold War rivalry, the Space Race was on, and American passion for space travel was a sign of the country’s greatness. In 1966, this translated into NASA’s spending, as the agency received 4.41 percent of the federal budget. Since then, NASA’s funding has steadily dried up, reaching a record low of 0.48 percent of the budget in 2012. The result has been decades of painfully slowed development of aerospace technology. Compared to the meteoric rise of space exploration in the 11 years from the launch of Sputnik to the moon landing, the last 40 years have seen massively reduced interest in space exploration and a corresponding deceleration of technological progress.

The Voyager probe itself can explain some of the causes behind the public’s fading passion for space travel as well as the government’s reduced willingness to finance it. An unmanned, a one-ton probe crossing a hypothetical boundary between our sun’s heliosphere and interstellar space after a 36-year flight has lacked the pizzazz of a moon landing. The huge distances and long timescales associated with space exploration are difficult for an impatient public to accept. Additionally, the continuing economic downturn further dampens any desire to spend more on research with long-term, seemingly intangible goals.

Ultimately, citizens and governments do not see any compelling reason to invest time, money and energy into space travel. This trend must be reversed. There must be new, global push to understand the value of space travel and invest more into public and international space programs.

The widespread benefits of investment in space endeavors are clear. Countless technologies which owe their origins to NASA labs are used throughout the world. From LEDs and efficient solar panels to memory foam pillows and freeze-dried food, innovative technologies developed for use in space can find uses far beyond the niche for which they develop. Satellites have changed the way we communicate and navigate, and none of this would be possible without the passion for space exploration which was such a powerful inspiration during the space race.

Since the dawn of the space race in the middle of the 20th century, there have been huge leaps in technological understanding, as well as revolutions in our understanding of ourselves and our environment. Continued industrialization has led to intensified pollution, increased emission of greenhouse gases and the destruction of ecosystems. We are more aware of mankind’s role in bringing about unmatched extinction in the years since man first wielded a spear. And we have green movements and new focuses on sustainability to show for it.

It must be acknowledged that humans have a dual role: being both a great destroyer of life and the only possible preserver of life. Humans have surely caused more extinctions than any other species, but even our most destructive tendencies are overshadowed by the life-extinguishing powers of geological and cosmological events. Earth has seen five great extinction events in its history, each coming about from geologic turbulence or asteroid impacts and wiping out up to 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Such events can and will happen again. The earth, with conditions so perfect for harboring life, is liable to turn into an uninhabitable rock at any point in time. Simply put, if the human race is to survive, it must learn to exist outside of the earth.

As a species, humans are natural explorers. This evolutionary quality led us out of Africa to the far corners of the globe so that even if certain populations went extinct, the species would survive. This same evolutionary failsafe must lead humans to the stars, to satisfy our infinite thirst for knowledge, to ensure our indefinite survival and to preserve the quintessence of as much terrestrial life as possible.

In this context, space exploration can be seen as something which unites humankind. Through NASA, America has been at the forefront of the field of space exploration, but even the patriots in Houston have something of an internationalist view (when it comes to space, at least). The Voyager probe was meant to be a message from humankind to the universe. It contains golden records featuring greetings in 56 languages, music from around the world and even calls from various animals. It is this attitude toward space travel which, if adopted and seriously pursued, can uplift and preserve all of us.

Voyager 1’s crossing into interstellar space is a notable accomplishment. It will be a great pity if the historical probe is left to drift aimlessly until it loses power sometime in the next decade. Earth, that pale blue dot photographed by Voyager back in 1990, is our dear home, the cradle of the mind. But as Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote in 1911, “one cannot live forever in the cradle.” For all of earth’s species, we must push on with renewed vigor in our study and exploration of space.

William Stupp is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at stupp@oxy.edu or on Twitter at @WklyWStupp.

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