The Final Frontier
When the first person landed on the moon 42 years ago, it ushered in a new age. Billions of people had seen the moon throughout their lives, but no one had ever been there until 1969. Now, 38 years since the last moon voyage, there has been insufficient motivation to go back. Even worse, it’s not just the moon—we haven’t gone anywhere.
The year 2011 is more than just the year I will graduate from college with a major in physics and a focus in astronomy. It is also the year that NASA plans to end the space shuttle program. The three active space shuttles are expected to make one more flight each: Discovery in February, Endeavour in April, and Atlantis, depending on funding, in June.
I think ending the space shuttle program is an immense mistake. Further, even though current NASA priorities favor telescope programs that will support the areas of astronomy I am passionate about, I would prefer to see resources dedicated to sending people to the moon and beyond.
The main reason NASA has not sent anybody back to the moon is the cost. It is cheaper to send rovers to the moon and other planets, since they don’t require food and water to survive. The Apollo program, which resulted in six manned moon landings, cost about $185 billion in current dollars. NASA currently has a five-year budget of $100 billion. It is much cheaper to send people to the International Space Station, about 200 miles above the surface of the Earth—a little farther than a drive from Colby to Boston. The moon is about 250,000 miles away—the equivalent of going around the equator 10 times.
Although there are discussions and long-range plans within NASA for sending people to other celestial bodies, that isn’t what the agency is spending its money on. NASA officials are using their budget to fund other projects, such as space telescopes and robotic missions.
As a student of astronomy at Colby, all of my projects, including three summer research programs at other schools, have involved telescopes on Earth and in space or other detectors in space. My thesis, Interstellar Dust and its Effect on Modeling High Mass Protostars, relies on space telescopes that gather data in the infrared—wavelengths of light between the red end of the visible spectrum and microwaves.
If more money were dedicated to creating better telescopes, it would allow for the acquisition of higher quality data. Although my personal astronomy interest would benefit from a NASA budget with such a focus, I don’t think it is what’s best for the world.
We cannot underestimate the benefits to sending a real person to the moon and other planets. If we continue to send people to moon, it will better prepare us for sending people to Mars, and that could lead us to sending people to other planets and eventually to other solar systems as well. We need to keep pushing the limits of human exploration.
People have mixed feelings about where NASA is headed now. Former astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, is upset with the end of the shuttle program, which he says will result in the United States no longer being the leader in space. Others believe, or maybe hope, that the post-shuttle NASA will eventually send people back to the moon or to Mars, since the budget discusses robotic missions to both, as well as to nearby asteroids—missions that hopefully would be precursors to human exploration.
It is encouraging that President Obama has increased NASA’s budget for the 2011 fiscal year, with some of this money going toward developing and building better heavy-lift rockets and space propulsion technology that will be able to send spacecraft farther and faster into space. But no definite plans for sending humans to these places exist. My hope is that robotic missions will pave the way for sending humans to new places.
There is currently nothing to replace the space shuttle program, but we are seeing the beginning of a new phenomenon: commercial space flight. NASA is encouraging it with the hope that private entrepreneurs will be able to provide access to low earth orbit, including access to the International Space Station. Companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are making great progress towards this goal.
“Space: the final frontier,” a voiceover says during opening credits for Star Trek. “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Variations of this quote introduce many Star Trek television episodes and films. Although it’s from a science fiction show, I like the message and believe it is something to keep in mind as humans explore the universe.
Problems like global warming and overpopulation may encourage visiting moons and planets in search of a new habitat, but I don’t think we need any reason beyond pure curiosity. It is impossible to predict what would result from travelling to other places in our solar system and, when technology advances enough, outside of our solar system.
Who knows what we could find?