Tuesday, 21 July 2009

'Man must explore'

At this very moment, exactly forty years ago, two men set foot upon the surface of the Moon.

The Moon, people!

There are many celebrations taking place 'in real life' and online; some of the most compelling of these are the real-time-plus-40-years commemorations like the Apollo 11 Radiocast, We Choose the Moon and ApolloPlus40.

As with all anniversaries (and boy, do I speak from experience), this is a time to reflect on the past and contemplate the future - in this case, of space exploration.

Almost as if to emphasize this, a review of the US Human Space Flight program is taking place right now, and they want our feedback. That's right: they want us rabble to tell them what we think about the future of manned missions into orbit and beyond.

So, here's what I think:

I think Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott knew exactly what he was talking about when, upon becoming the 7th man to walk on the Moon, he said, "As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature: man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest."

I think that John F. Kennedy was absolutely right when, in his famous "we choose to go to the moon" speech, he said that we should go to the moon "because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...".

And I think that science and exploration are not just icing on a cultural cake to be undertaken during economically flush times, not just things we do to reap cold, hard, profitable benefits, but a core part of who we are as human beings.

As Brian Greene wrote in his brilliant NY Times Op-Ed piece 'Put a Little Science in Your Life', "science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world. [snip] We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living."

Update (21st July 12:15pm): I also think that people are holding science in general and the space program in particular to a double standard when it comes to federal funding. Have a look at Death and Taxes, an excellent and intuitive visualization of the federal budget. Is the NASA circle bigger or smaller than you expected?