Give Me A Challenge, And I’ll Meet It With Joy

My fellow sheBOMBer JuJuBean beat me to this story in her excellent happy shit round-up earlier today, but because I get ridiculously sentimental when it comes to anything space and/or NASA-related, I couldn’t let this piece pass up without further comment.

As JuJuBean explained, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department branch that helped develop the Internet, plans to award some star-struck organization with a $500,000 grant to begin studying the necessary steps to send humans to another star. Darpa acknowledges the gravity of this task, expecting it to be at least 100 years before this program yields a practical result. After all, the study is not meant to cover simply the technological gap that prevents us from making that leap to other star systems at the moment, but (according to the NYTimes article on the subject), to consider the “legal, social and economic considerations of interstellar migration, philosophical and religious concerns, where to go and — perhaps most important — how to inspire the public to support this very expensive vision.”

Actually, Darpa has their work cut out for them: there’s a wonderful little indie film out right now called “Another Earth” which, strangely and conveniently enough, submits many of those very philosophical and ethical concerns of inter-planetary travel (seriously, I heard about this announcement right after coming home from a screening of that film last night; it was freaky). On that last count of inspiring public support, however, Darpa is likely to encounter some resistance, especially given the current economic climate. Luckily, I’m prepared right now to offer my arguments for the pursuit of traveling to the stars, in order of escalating persuasion (and legitimacy). If there are any defense department agents reading this post, I would graciously accept any cash grants you feel the need to toss my way in return for using this carefully developed and obviously brilliantly written rationale.

6) BEAT THE RUSSIANS

When the space shuttle program was officially retired last month, I never heard any media outlets mention one of the major implications of this development: America is now losing the space race. Badly. Oh, you thought the Cold War was over, did you? I assure you, Vladimir Putin does not agree. And while we futz around wringing NASA dry, giving up on manned flights to space, who’s still up there, running the International Space Station? That’s right, the Plucky Cosmonauts. This is a country that put a man into orbit even though they couldn’t design a functioning clock radio. If they find out that we’ve got a plan to travel to another solar system in 100 years, they’ll figure out a way to get there in 75. JFK is rolling in his grave.

Though we admit, Gagarin was a total bad-ass.

5) Space travel is ridiculously cool

I mean, have you been looking at the pictures in this post? Here’s a few more just for further convincing:

Yes, I stole these pictures from Cracked. This doesn't change the fact that the shuttle was metal as fuck.

4) Respect

Apparently everyone got so bored with the space shuttle just going up and down and up and down that we all forgot: people died for this shit.

The Columbia and Challenger explosions. The cabin fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1. The years of persecution of astronomers by the Catholic Church, which led to philosophers and scientists like Giordano Bruno and many others being burned at the fucking stake.

These people were willing to risk their lives in the name of exploration, research and discovery. For decades now, some of the most courageous men and women on the planet crammed themselves into tin cans that made a United Economy Class flight look like a G6, and shot themselves into outer space, accepting all the extraordinary dangers that involved, just so we could learn more about our world and the way it works. Don’t we owe it to all those people to continue what they started?

3) Jobs

NASA’s budget was already getting slashed to the bone BEFORE the latest debt crisis. How do you think they’re going to fare in the days ahead, with the Super-Congress tasked with making cuts left and right?

The Glenn Research Center right here in Cleveland will, in all likelihood, be shut down within the next couple of years. I have several friends whose parents have worked at the facility for years. Hopefully they’ll find work elsewhere, but it almost certainly won’t be here, a city starved for industry. The situation is the same at other NASA facilities across the country, which have been centers for high-end, skilled engineering jobs in otherwise poverty-stricken areas. NASA grants have been proven to boost the economies of every single state in the U.S. With so many people clamoring for “more jobs, more jobs” in these tough times, how does it make sense to cut one of our most important providers of skilled employment opportunities?

By the way, a public poll from 1997 reported that the average American thinks NASA’s budget is about 20% of the overall federal budget. That figure has actually consistently hovered at 0.5% (roughly $18 billion per year) since the 90’s. We are certainly not getting the same kind of economic return on the $4 trillion we’ve spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

2) We always end up with more than just rockets

The space shuttles didn’t make all those trips into orbit just to prove that they could. Space travel has led to technological, medical and engineering advances whose impact has reached far beyond a few astronauts. Thanks to NASA, we have ear thermometers (which drastically reduced the amount of time nurses need to take temperatures), shoe insoles, invisible braces, smoke detectors, safety grooving on the sides of highways (which reduced accidents by as much as 85%), cordless tools, water filters, and satellite communication technology. Astronauts NEEDED those things, but they’ve ended up making life better for everyone on this planet.

If it weren't for NASA, we wouldn't have Tom Cruise's dazzling smile.

1) The challenge

And you know what, even if we HAD gone into space just to prove that we could, it would still be worth it. If there was any single moment in human history I wish I could’ve been alive to see, it would’ve been the 1969 moon landing. For one beautiful moment – maybe it was brief or even infinitesimal – every person on this planet was able to watch that footage of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, look at the person next to them, put aside whatever political or personal differences they had, and think, “WE did that.” The human race did that, perhaps for no other reason than we said we would.

The natural progression of humankind must be forward. We must challenge ourselves to increase what we know, and what we can do. We must choose to do things that seem beyond our reach, BECAUSE they are hard, because they push us to think differently. Giving up may be easier (or cheaper) in the short run, but it goes against our nature. If traveling to another star is the next challenge to ourselves, then so be it.