In the immediate wake of the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia, I’ve seen comments calling for the abandonment of manned space exploration. In my view, this is foolish, shortsighted thinking, because manned space exploration is the most important long-term human endeavor.
Space truly is “the final frontier.” We have largely explored and exploited all human habitable area on Earth. Though there will be some incremental increase in the area and resources we can use, what we know we have available on earth right now is just about it.
In the relatively short term – perhaps the next hundred years – this probably won’t be a problem. However, well beyond that, we will reach the limits of the Earth’s resources. Though resource limits are a problem, the real issue is social and psychological.
Space is the one truly new area that man is exploring. If we abandon that, what does humanity have to look forward to. We will be leftwith only the petty terrestrial concerns of our tiny little marble floating in the universe.
I think the absence of horizons has already started to affect American culture. Because we are making minimal progress in bringing out the truly novel, people are turning inward and giving credence to non-scientific quackery. If science and technology isn’t perceived as marching steadily on, bringing new things to the average person, the charlatans and flim-flam artists will sell their false version of progress.
In space exploration, like in all exploration ventures beforehand, there will be death and equipment loss. To go beyond what we have alreay encountered is by definition dangerous. I think that we’ve has a remarkably good saftey record in space exploration, considering the unique characteristics of the environments that space explorers must go through. Consider the early sea voyagers or air innovators, who died at a much greater rate than those in the space programs.
Without space exploration, the innovative and adventurous will not have external goals to seek. Instead, they will focus on expanding their realms on earth, at the expense of other occupants.
We should learn what we can from this loss, and act to prevent its repetition, but we cannot abandon our efforts to sail beyond the skies.