When “Star Trek” showed Capt. James T. Kirk writing on a handheld, touch-sensitive electronic notepad in 1967, most computer scientists, not to mention most viewers, thought it was absurd — a fun flight of fancy, yes, but certainly not something that could happen in the real world. The very notion was ridiculous! Yet here I am, typing away on a touch-screen computer that I carry with me everywhere, invigorated with the newly discovered knowledge that “Star Trek” may have been right about something else: life on other planets.
For those who are late to the story, don’t worry, we haven’t made first contact with an alien civilization yet. If that had happened, I’m sure someone would have texted you. But a new study published Monday in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reports that there are likely billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, planets that have suns like our sun and that are about the right distance from those suns to maintain habitable temperatures.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this news. As tantalizing as these faraway places may be to the imagination, their discovery underlines just how little the United States government is doing at present to actually get there. As exciting as it was to watch NASA’s Curiosity rover land on Mars last year, our space program is, on the whole, a shell of what it once was. That’s a shameful failure of public policy, and it is something we must change.
The government’s departure from the space business has been a rare bit of bipartisanship. Despite George W. Bush’s assurances that we would put a man on Mars by 2020, it was his administration that decided to end NASA’s much-beloved shuttle program. Despite Barack Obama’s insistence that his generation was profoundly inspired by the space program, his administration’s budget proposal would reduce NASA’s already significantly shrunken funding. Meanwhile, tragedies like the Challenger and Columbia disasters of 1986 and 2003 cast a pall over the space program that would probably disappoint no one more than the victims of those accidents themselves. In short: Conservatives want budget cuts, liberals want the budget focused on earthly problems like poverty, accidents diminish support from the non-ideological public, and the victim of our collective ambivalence is science itself.
Indeed, despite the resurgence of the science-based space genre with movies like “Gravity” and an upcoming reality TV show that will launch celebrities into space (but, alas, not keep them there), the real-life American institutions that created those programs’ foundational iconography is in shambles. Enjoyable though it was to see the space shuttle Endeavour being taken through the streets of Los Angeles on its way to the California Science Center, its presence here underscores its absence elsewhere. Cape Canaveral is a ghost of the town it once was, the Detroit of the aeronautics world. With NASA’s shuttle launching facilities shuttered, American astronauts have to be launched into orbit from Russia’s facility in Kazakhstan — a truly staggering post-Cold War irony.
As things stand, the only way you might be able to get to space from America in the near future is to become extremely wealthy and pay Elon Musk or Richard Branson to send you there. Musk and Branson are fine people, and their private-sector space tourism companies, Space X and Virgin Galactic, are fine too for what they are. But when I was a kid, my friends and I dreamed of being astronauts — not of being investment bankers who are wealthy enough to pay some eccentric billionaire to let us pretend to be astronauts for a day. We should be able to tell the next generation of kids that if they work hard and learn science, they might have the opportunity to depart our planet. Right now, the best we can do is say, “If you want to reach for the stars, you better get really rich.”
Admittedly, Musk does have a heart for exploration and has generously offered to start funding exploratory trips to Mars and local asteroids. That is very nice of him, but relying on the benevolence of billionaires is not a reliable means of exploring our universe. As attractive as it may seem to just privatize everything, going to the stars seems like a pretty reasonable example of what society should consider a group effort.
There has been and will continue to be much memorializing of President John F. Kennedy in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of his assassination. But the living memorial to his vision is the technologically marvelous world that emerged in large part from his call to explore space in the 1960s. To cite just one of many examples: If you are reading this article on a mobile phone, it almost certainly went through a satellite (or three) to get to you. Who figured out how to make satellites happen on a massive scale, even when there was no immediate profit to be made from doing so? Hint: It was NASA. NASA’s scientists did things, in the words of JFK, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and the result was one of the most extraordinary research and development programs in history.
The discovery of multitudes of Earth-like planets that we can practically see but not touch should be our generation’s Sputnik moment. We should let it inspire us to dedicate our greatest minds to the exploration of our universe, and in so doing change our world for the better. The private sector is doing its part in this journey, but private space travel for the elite can be only half the story; the other half is public funding with public support to explore our universe and, in so doing, make previously unthinkable advances like touch-screen computers that communicate with satellites so commonplace that our descendants find our amazement hilarious. That is how we do right by the legacy of John Kennedy — and maybe even Capt. Kirk.
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