Have you seen the pictures from the Webb Space Telescope? The first pictures of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, as it looked 4.6 billion years ago, were amazing. Webb is bringing us images from the beginnings of the known universe, approximately 1 billion years after the Big Bang, which happened about 13.8 billion years ago. This is awe inspiring. This cosmic work of God is majestic and the expertise of NASA and the Webb team is so vast in its achievement and potential as to possibly redefine our relationship to the cosmic.
And yet, where are we? Where is man? Since the early 1970s, have we gone where no man has gone before? Sure, the space truck and the sky condo have benefited the practice of science. But even the Webb is still primarily a voyeuristic exercise. We like to watch.
As such, we’re still almost completely tethered to this planet and its near environs. It seems a lifetime ago that Alan Shepard lit his candle, Gus Grissom gave his life, and Neil Armstrong took a step for mankind. If this lethargy continues we may one day, perhaps sooner than you think, see a Chicom flag on the surface of Mars. Is that what we’ve come to?
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I betray my age with my enthusiasm for manned space. I was a kid in the 60s and thrilled to Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. My junior high school was even named after the last of the programs. The men who flew into space were my ultimate heroes, more important to me than any sports star. And the Cold War aspect, beating the Russians to the moon? It was the best present an eight year old could have possibly received.
But that era has come and gone, yet to be revived by a politician looking for a shot at national glory and interplanetary discovery. This was brought home to me by two colleagues. Both young men and one a scientist who works in the realm of space. To them Apollo 11 is a historical footnote and in conversation they told me that a Chinese manned landing on Mars might annoy them a tad, but would not represent a national humiliation. They would instead be pleased that Mars was now human territory.
I understand their views, as much as I wince at them. Without the crucible of the Cold War, not that we’re completely at peace with Beijing, the prestige projects lose their allure. Pure science takes the helm and, as with the Webb, our knowledge expands exponentially.
However, what are we going to do with that knowledge? Are we just going to take fascinating pictures or is the data gained a road map to the stars? For the sake of mankind many generations hence, it must be a map, a recon, a path. There are things out there that defy our present realities. It’s about time we returned to the business of setting foot on them and planting the Stars and Stripes.