When it was announced that Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey would premier in the venerable 9pm Sunday time-slot a few months ago, I told my wife we would be watching this live instead of another one of my favorites: The Walking Dead (Sorry, Continuum, we are still friends but there are priorities in television watching.) She looked at me weirdly, knowing that such a drastic shift would require either an alien using mind control or a possession by a ghost to occur. After reassuring her that there was nothing out of the ordinary – within my definition of “ordinary”, mind you – I explained to her why I was so adamant about this. My reasons are actually quite simpler than you think.
Our society does not look up to the stars anymore and what is out there. We no longer care about what is in that final frontier, unless it is coming at us at 186,000 mph or with an armada behind it. In fact, ever since the Challenger disaster in 1986 (with a similar event to occur again in 2003 with Columbia) and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the curiosity of space and all its mysteries gradually took a back seat to the problems on Earth. The US has consistently trimmed NASA’s funding to the point of roughly less than 1%(0.5% to be precise) of the country’s 3 trillion dollar budget over the last few years, as well as cut funding to SETI. This regression from the stars has even changed the media landscape, with no real space opera or space-based sci-fi programming since the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica in 2009. We don’t have a reason to care anymore.
It’s a shame, really. The Cold War spawned the last real “Space Race”; the reason why we headed to the stars in the first place in the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s. And after the sacrifices that were endured, we finally made it not only to the stars but even to the moon. We launched Voyager 1 in 1977, which officially left our solar system in 2012; the first human spacecraft built to ever do so. We have seen Earth’s selfie numerous times, thanks to the many scientists, engineers and pilots who braved the flight beyond our atmosphere.
Yet, we as a global community do not care what is in the great beyond anymore. In fact, I would go as far as to say that we have regressed and fear what lies out there. The US has no real reason to strive for space flight past our own planet, despite Obama’s assurances that there is a mission to Mars in the works. Russia, China and other space faring nations have no real reason to travel further either. In fact, whenever you enter into a conversation of space exploration, the average person will respond with a variation of “There other problems here on Earth.” Trust me; I have tried it a few times.
But we should care. We should continue to strive for the stars if nothing more than the benefit and survival of our species. That we collectively work up the courage for more space exploration for numerous practical, rational and philosophical reasons.
The first reason is a pretty practical one. At the current rate of water, food and natural resource consumption, we will not be able to survive as a species, much less live in the current comfort and decadence as we do now. We consume far too much than the planet can provide or renew to the point that experts on the topic are far more than certain that food and water – in combination with our contribution to greenhouse gases in our atmosphere – will begin to become a precious commodity between 2050 and 2080. And since conservation efforts have either been blocked by large corporations or just not on the minds of people, nor is culling the world’s population to acceptable levels an option, there is only one other avenue to explore: space. Within our own solar system we have an abundance of many materials, from energy of the sun and water on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, to precious metals and other materials in the asteroids, planets and satellites that take residence. There are plenty of opportunities seek these resources out and use them sparingly if we made exploration a priority. Someone on Twitter recently made the joke that if the government told people there was oil on Titan, countries and companies would be there tomorrow. Funny, yes, but the sentiment is quite true.
Another reason to explore the stars is all the innovation and progression both science and society would generally benefit from. Think of all the scientific and technological advances our society has benefitted from since the 1960’s . Smart phones, tablets, LED’s, carbon fiber, nanotubes… Every concept that every scientist and engineer discovered the last 40 years is a direct result of the Space Race, whether they are people like Carl Sagan or those who were inspired like Gene Roddenberry. Without these contributions, no matter their consequence or quantitative measure, our society would not be where it is today. We would not be able to interact here, on the internet, without the contributions made back then. Our species is capable of extraordinary things when we put our collective mind to it. When Kennedy made his now famous speech to Congress in 1962 that it will be US who will get to the moon first, Congress followed suit by funding the project. Less than seven years after this speech, in the summer of 1969, there were three brave souls on that planetary body. And due to this, and many innovations since then in government funded research, we have materials that are thin and moldable but can withstand many harsh conditions. We have communication technology now that we only saw in Star Trek and other genre series (FYI, still waiting on a light saber, people!) Think of the possibilities we could achieve if a new “Space Race” began. If we pulled our resources together for a push to Mars, Saturn and its moons or even beyond our own solar system. That we funded projects that would grant us interstellar travel to explore beyond and perhaps even colonize. We as a species could only benefit from such initiatives.
Then there are the two final reasons; two traits that have been the most fundamental in our species development, yet are the greatest and most endearing part of us.
We are curious, imaginative beings. Despite the fact we initially fear and hate what we do not understand, we are still full of wonder and imagination. Sagan was quoted once, that “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” Our collective history is only proof of this, ever since we began to stand upright. It is this curiosity that lead our species to populate the planet in our infancy. It was our imaginations that lead us to create and execute such grand civilizations, mechanical wonders and great technological advances. Both traits lead us to explore our planet and reconnect with our long lost ancestors. And it is this curiosity and imagination that compelled us to look up to the sky and wonder what lies beyond the confines of our miniscule place in the universe.
Without these traits, we would never question why something exists or why it is what it is. We would never go to the lengths we do in order to solve the unknown. We would never be who we are without it, much less where we are. These fundamental traits are who we are and can lead us to be whatever we want. We create such fantastic things for our entertainment, and then eventually make them a reality.
Surely we cannot travel deeper into space on imagination and wonder alone. How do we make something like Star Trek more a reality than we have so far? Sure it is a daunting task, but what isn’t that was not worth it in the end?
First and foremost, we would need to invest heavily in the sciences and math (no common core, mind you) as well as engineering and other manufacturing trades. Developing space faring vehicles that are capable of both interplanetary and interstellar travel does not only take science, but the practical means to develop them at a low cost. Offer grants and contracts with strict rules to the private sector to develop new technology and processes, similar to the military. Promote new or existing businesses (like Elon Musk’s Space-X) to develop a new space industry. Not only would you achieve the goal of expansion into the solar system, but the economic benefit would be considerable. Millions of jobs would be created both directly and indirectly by this initiative, only to grow further when we establish ourselves amongst the stars.
Such a daunting task cannot be shouldered by one country alone. Such an undertaking would require the international community to achieve these goals. During the 90’s, the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and the European Union came together and developed the International Space Station, which the first modules were launched in 1998. It is still one of our races greatest achievements not only scientifically, but socially as well with so many countries involved with its use. Surely a larger project such as interplanetary travel would need not only more minds and resources of one nation, but many others as well.
Public support is crucial as well in our push to the stars. Support of shows like Cosmos – both Sagan’s original series and the current iteration that is masterfully hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson – that are aired on network and public television is a great start. But more can be done. Support of local PBS affiliates will help, with such shows they offer like Nova. Bring properties like Star Trek back to where it began and thrived for the many years people remember it for; where both crews of the Enterprise explored the stars while dealing with the unknowns. We need more people like Tyson and Chris Hadfield – who garnered such an audience during his tenure on the ISS – to speak out and support science programs and space exploration initiatives. Anything that will feed upon our race’s wonder and imagination.
It is also imperative to involve and encourage our younger generations to take an interest in the sciences, math and engineering as well. Bring back shows like Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy, so kids can learn about these topics. Encourage their imaginations and wonder, whether it is through playing with LEGO’s, progressive toys like Goldie Blox, art, music and even writing. Take them to museums, planetariums and science centers where they can experience these phenomena in fun and unique ways. Our children crave knowledge and are instinctively curious about the world, and it is only fitting that not only parents but all adults should encourage them so they may go beyond what we could only imagine.
It is also up to us geeks to promote this agenda to the masses. We all watch these shows, read the blogs and even create the media we consume. We are not only knowledgeable of the topic, but quite intelligent, creative and driven as well. We should charge ourselves to bring this topic to the forefront of our nations’ attentions in any way possible. Think of new ideas or perspectives to existing problems associated with this topic. Promote math and the sciences at your local schools. Inundate your lawmakers and leaders with letters and petitions to make your voices heard regarding these types of projects. Promote shows like Cosmos on Twitter and Facebook. Do anything you can to lobby the masses and lawmakers that this is not only a topic that affects us, but benefits us all.
Lastly, we should not be afraid of the unknown, no matter where it leads us. Fear should only drive us into making proper choices in how we conduct ourselves as we strive to reach the heavens, not restrict or prohibit our curiosity and imagination. It should not deter us from exploring space; which is truly our final frontier.