A few weeks ago, the United States and the world mourned the loss of a legend. Aug. 25, Neil Armstrong died, 43 years after being the first human being to step foot on the moon. But as one of only 12 men to walk on the moon, and only a few dozen more to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, his death should serve to remind us of our place in the universe, and our waning attempts to change it.
America today is not the same country it was in the 1960s. We’re not trying to outpace a rival superpower, and we’re nowhere near as financially stable as we were four decades ago. Space travel, while once the collective vision of a nation, is now the casually ignored vision of the overly idealistic. NASA’s Curiosity Rover, a spectacular step forward in the understanding of Mars’s history, has recently been criticized as a misuse of funds, especially in the middle of a financial crisis.
Much of this is because of the multi-billion dollar budget NASA is allocated annually, a seemingly excessive number to those focused on earthly issues. But when compared to other US programs, it’s not only reasonable, it’s actually pretty small. In 2011, NASA was given $18.7 billion, a seemingly vast sum of money. But when compared to, say, a $738 billion defense budget, it suddenly becomes a bit more reasonable.
The positives of space exploration for society also far outweigh the relatively small budget that we allocate for it. LED lights, improved roads, artificial limbs and scratch-resistant lenses are only a few of the countless advances in technology made by NASA, let alone the technology used to actually transport human beings into space.
But the issue is not that we shouldn’t oppose space exploration. We need to actively support it.
The last men to walk on the moon were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt of Apollo 17, in 1972. Since then, no one has set foot on the moon, or even left low Earth orbit. It’s been four decades since a human being has stepped foot anywhere other than the surface of the Earth. Why?
We should want to see more than the few hundred million miles we can see already, in a universe that stretches billions of light years further than we can even begin to imagine. How can we be content with never looking beyond one planet out of billions?
Why haven’t we seen this strange, exciting new frontier not as an economic drain, but as a vast human step leap towards something greater? Can we not, as a species, dream bigger than what we already started with?
In June of this year, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp announced his latest business endeavor, which could potentially be the greatest achievement of the 21st century: the colonization of another world. Still in the investment stages right now, Mars One plans to place its first four colonists by 2023, and reach 20 by 2033.
For the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, humanity has its first opportunity to pick up and move from the small blue rock it started on, to the even smaller red one next door. And I, at least, can’t think of anything more exciting than that.
Lets put aside our differences, and look at the bigger picture. Regardless of race, political leanings, nationality or religious beliefs, there is one thing we can agree on: the universe is enormous. It is inconceivably huge, and from what we’ve seen from earth, far more mysterious and beautiful than we can possibly imagine.
In the face of adversity, humanity binds together. Only when confronted with a challenge do we truly overlook each other’s differences and look towards something greater. Let’s look away from the day-to-day events of a fractured world and instead at the vastness of the universe, not as individuals but as one united species, and together, let’s take our next giant leap for mankind.