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Humanity's destiny lies in "the final frontier"

The Economist
The Economist cover stor "The end of the Space Age" (July 2, 2011)
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Has the United States lost its way so far
that we are preparing to pretty much mothball most of our once-great space program?

If the influential, internationally-recognized news magazine
The Economist is any indication, we
are pretty close to doing just that with the final mission by NASA’s Atlantis
Space Shuttle, which is currently in orbit and will return to Earth one final
time on July 21 with its four-person crew.

The latest issue of that well-respected magazine, with the
cover story “The end of the Space Age,” got me to thinking that influential
organs like The Economist seem to
revel in the hastening demise of our once stellar space program.

Here in the U.S.,  jobs will be lost and a sense of purpose will
be gone as well. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at. From 1981 until 2011,
it was routine to see a Space Shuttle launch. We remember those lost aboard the
Challenger (1986) and the Columbia (2003) and recognize the roles
they had in seeking knowledge beyond this planet.

We are informed that while Mars is no longer on the
table, a trek President George W. Bush once promised before the current
economic realities under President Barack Obama set in, hitching expensive rides
to the space station with the Russians is in our future. Maybe a trip to a
nearby asteroid way down the line. In the meantime, it’s time to crank up the
unmanned probes. We are too limited in our abilities, despite the fact, as
noted by my fellow writer Dave McGowan, we achieved amazing things four decades
ago with the multiple Apollo Moon landings.

Meanwhile, astronauts Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Rex
Walheim and Sandy Magnus are going about their work in orbit as I write this,
back here in hot, ol’ Oklahoma. I wish them well and I know others around the
globe are doing the same.

In fact, songs have been sung and transmitted to the STS-135
crew since they made it into orbit. Sending musical messages to the crew
include Elton John (“Rocket Man”), R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (“Man On the Moon”), Beyonce
Knowles (“Run the World (Girls)”) and Paul McCartney (“Good Day Sunshine”).
Bittersweet, indeed.

And while they finish up their projects and prepare to
return, that’s pretty much it for America’s space program. And reading The Economist’s July 2, 2011 issue addressing the end of the Space Age, as it were, we see that the magazine is
content with us being “bounded by that new outer limit of planet Earth, the
geostationary orbit.” And while “the buzz of activity will continue to grow and
fill the vacuum,” they write, beyond it “the vacuum will remain empty.”

Writes The Economist
editorial staff: “It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of
human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of
human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is
over.”

Continuing: “But the shuttle is now over. The (International
Space Station) is due to be de-orbited, in the inelegant jargon of the field,
in 2020. Once that happens, the game will be up. There is no appetite to return
to the moon, let alone push on to Mars, El Dorado of space exploration. The
technology could be there, bu the passion has gone – at least in the
traditional spacefaring powers, America and Russia.”

And whose fault is that? I think the fading superpowers of
this planet have lost their vision and should be working together, as fellow
Earthlings, to build ships to take us to the stars.

But people – myself included in recent years – began to
become skeptical of the cost. Was it worth it to spend millions of a single
mission where we watch paramecium in a test tube or launch a secret satellite.
For three decades it was largely the same missions over and over. That
repetition may have dulled interest among the public. I know it did for me,
someone not old enough to remember the final days of the Apollo years.

Even back in 1995 – 16 years ago – a letter ran in The New York Times from a Brooklyn, N.Y
. man who argued that despite the popularity of the Tom Hanks film Apollo 13, released that year, about the
troubled Apollo mission in 1970, the letter writer noted that while Americans
like the space program, when faced with daunting expenses and real-world
financial problems “(f)or most of us, it is not too apparent how these dollars
can still be justified.”

“If there is a finite amount of money available to be spent
by the Government, how much should be spent exploring the infinite worlds of
outer space? I'd be happy if those weather satellites could be used to predict
tomorrow's weather more accurately.”

A point well taken. Yet here we are, most of us tied to this
“third rock from the sun,” dreaming about “what’s out there.” Sure, we were
told we sent men multiple times to the Moon between 1969 and 1972, but why was
it after those missions did we opt for programs closer to home. Why did the
fire leave our bellies.

The Economist continued: “There may be occasional forays,
just as men sometimes leave their huddled research bases in Antarctica to
scuttle briefly across the ice cap before returning, for warmth, food, and
company, to base. But humanity’s dreams
of a future beyond that final frontier have, largely, faded
.”

I strongly disagree with the usually big-picture editorial
staff at The Economist. Look at the popularity
of sci-fi entertainment. The Star Trek
franchise is one of the biggest of all time! If we can spend billions on
pointless wars that seem to never end, or fund bloated, pork-barrel projects
(think the infamous “bridge to nowhere”) or programs that make absolutely no
sense so certain folks can get re-elected, we can certainly revamp and
revitalize our nation’s space program. I agree that NASA has been problematic
over the years and hides too many of its discoveries and isn’t innovative
enough, but I do think new leadership can get us back on the right track. And
while I’m a small-government kind of guy, I think the federal government has a
rightful place in promoting space exploration, for all the talk of privatization
from the current administration.

And in my younger years I took to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the
film and the sequel. The unknown inspired me somehow and Clarke’s work and Stanley
Kubrick’s interpretation on film, were simply magical. Back when I read the
book and saw the movie, in the mid-1980’s, there seemed to be a realm of
possibilities in space that we were going to embrace over the next 20 years.
Little did I know that a quarter-of-a-century later any serious space missions
involving manned American spaceflight would be coming to an end. Shocking, when
you think about it. When the will to take on exciting, new challenges leaves a
nation, it can only be a sign that that nation is on the downhill slide. Many
would agree with me that that is what is happening in the U.S. But it doesn’t
have to be that way.

One of my heroes is English explorer Robert Falcon Scott. As
a teen I devoured Reginald Pound’s 1966 book, Scott of the Antarctic, his tome on  the all-too-human Englishman and his
explorations of Antarctica. Scott’s final march to the South Pole took place
100 years ago – November 1911, with him and his crew succumbing to the bitter
elements in early 1912. His story and his ill-fated Terra Nova polar trek – a race to beat
Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the bottom of the world – which took his life and
those of his brave men.

And Scott, like the explorers before and
after, was drawn to the challenge of what lay beyond. Not to sound cliché, but
the human spirit desires knowledge and seeking new challenges.

Said Scott of his urge to explore: “Every
day some new fact comes to light - some new obstacle which threatens the
gravest obstruction. I suppose this is the reason which makes the game so well
worth playing.

And exploration – deeper into space, way
down into the oceans and deep  into the
earth – these are places still undiscovered or understood. We at Red Dirt Report hope that the end of the
Space Shuttle program and serious manned space exploration is not permanent. We
hope that something will reinvigorate our desire to seek new worlds, as it has
so many explorers in days past.

A century ago, Robert Falcon Scott
understood the importance of exploration and discovery. Again, we hope the American
people recognize the importance of continued manned exploration and searching
into the unknown. I firmly believe it is humanity’s destiny to visit and settle
on new worlds. But humanity is not going to advance and grow if we decide
near-Earth orbit is as far as things go when it comes to manned space
exploration.

Copyright 2011 West
Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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