On the Uses of Space Exploration

It used to be that you only had to apply the words “space-age” to any product to instantly convey the idea of sleek modernity, evoking a vertiginous sense of being propelled into the future at light speed. Though precious few have had the privilege of donning a pressure suit and floating in orbit, many more of us were captivated by the lesser gifts of the space program. In school I scribbled notes with a pressurized pen that could write upside-down (not that anyone ever needed to), and when I emerged from a visit to the Smithsonian gnawing on freeze-dried astronaut ice cream that did nothing to cool me off on a hot summer day, I nevertheless thought it was grand.

It used to be that you only had to apply the words “space-age” to any product to instantly convey the idea of sleek modernity, evoking a vertiginous sense of being propelled into the future at light speed. Though precious few have had the privilege of donning a pressure suit and floating in orbit, many more of us were captivated by the lesser gifts of the space program. In school I scribbled notes with a pressurized pen that could write upside-down (not that anyone ever needed to), and when I emerged from a visit to the Smithsonian gnawing on freeze-dried astronaut ice cream that did nothing to cool me off on a hot summer day, I nevertheless thought it was grand.

At one time it was nearly unimaginable that as a civilization, having gone to the moon and back, Earthlings would not go on to conquer Mars, the outer planets of the solar system, and territories beyond, continually pushing back at the final frontier. But our interstellar ambitions gave way instead to unmanned deep space probes and humans were relegated to low Earth orbit. That was not the dream we were promised. Meanwhile, the integrated circuits that debuted in the Apollo guidance computers evolved into the miniature brains of networked smartphones that now capture our attention. It is Google vs. Facebook rather than the Cold War-era space race that drives innovation today. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the Space Age has been eclipsed by the Information Age.

With the final Space Shuttle launch, there’s been a pronounced uptick in talk of the Space Age once again. The goal of the Shuttle program was to make space flight repeatable, as well-understood and reliable as hopping a commuter plane for a business meeting. We may never have gotten our flying cars, but the Shuttle allowed us to believe that one day space flight might be accessible to the general public. In the press coverage of the past week, there’s been no small measure of nostalgia for a passing era, not to mention photographs and video footage delivering a final dose of awe. But to me it’s this simple narrative that provides some of the most compelling evidence that all this has never been — and perhaps could never become — routine:

A few minutes before launch, the whole shuttle vibrates as it cranks its engines to one side and the other, and backwards. There’s a real feeling that the machine is awakening. The seconds go by and everyone is watching. At exactly 10 seconds before launch, all the navigation instruments go from a rest position to active, you can see that navigation is tracking, that it knows where it wants to take the shuttle. A few seconds after that, the main engines light. You can’t really feel or hear much at that point. You see the power come up on the indicators in the cockpit, you see the thrust go up from zero to 100% on three engines and then you feel the whole stack sway forwards towards your feet, and that is because the thrust of the engines is so great that it bends the shuttle and stack on its hold-down bolts, and pushes it to one side. They call that the twang. The twang goes all the way, about 4ft, and then the whole stack bounces back. And at exactly the right moment, zero, the solid rocket boosters light and the hold-down bolts explode and off you go. It feels as if someone lit a bomb underneath your back. You just go flying up into the air, like a gigantic hand pushing you up into the sky. You see the launch tower fall by down one side and you are headed upwards into the sky.

But in the retrospectives on the Shuttle’s history there have also been the inevitable reminders of Challenger and Columbia, and pointed questions about what use it is to send people into space, and at such extravagant cost. Some are content to take our satellites and what data we can glean from our unmanned probes and X-ray telescopes, preferring to concentrate our resources on more earthly concerns. Leave manned space exploration to the realm of science fiction, they say. And there’s no doubt that space travel and alien encounters will continue to be fertile ground for storytelling despite the lack of real-world progress in those areas. We’ll continue to imagine dramas playing out across intergalactic stages, encompassing worlds completely unlike ours and cultures utterly foreign to us. Such speculation is useful and important even if those scenarios never come to fruition, for it prompts us to examine with a critical eye what it means to be human, to adopt a fresh perspective on ourselves and our place in the universe.

So maybe we don’t need to travel into space, not really. Until we discover a real-life Lagoona within reasonable vacationing distance there’s not a whole lot for the average human to do out there — yet. And one might warn that aspirations to colonize other planets only give us licence to mistreat our own before abandoning it. But such arguments ignore the fact that many of the benefits we’ve reaped from NASA and related endeavours have been precisely because we aimed to put people up there, out in the vacuum of space, and bring them back safely. The challenge of adapting our bodies to the hostile environment of deep space was what inspired the seminal paper that gave us the cyborg, an idea that has proved as powerful a tool for thinking about our terrestrial lives as it ever was for our hypothetical space-faring selves.

When you look at the problems we have right here on Earth, the case against continued investment in space flight can sound downright sensible, glamour and romance aside. But we could perhaps, use just a touch of hubris, some unreasonably arrogant drive to push beyond the boundaries of our current experience. For there are some daring, costly, impractical things that it is worth not only dreaming about, but actually striving to achieve.

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