I am currently watching CNN and seeing video of the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia, replayed over and over again. There are many eyewitness accounts, speculation, and denial that it was sabotage or terrorism. I’m also hearing that, upon take-off, debris had struck the left wing of Columbia and small pieces of insulation had broken loose. I am beginning to wonder if this ultimate fate was known to be more probable because of the damage. I wonder if the ground and flight crews had gnawing trepidation during the mission, worried that there might be problems on re-entry. I wonder if they explored options, such as docking with the space station, or launching another shuttle for rescue, but found those options to be unrealistic. I wonder if NASA made sure the crewmembers spoke with their families one last time with the knowledge of the upcoming risks during landing. I don’t know which fate is more tragic – to have known all through the mission about this risk, and have the opportunity to prepare yourself, or to have it be a total surprise.
So NASA has suffered another tragedy. So has the US. So has the world. But, these events notwithstanding, human spaceflight represents man’s ultimate achievement. The complexity, danger, and risk involved in sending humans into space and bring them safely home boggles the mind. After space-related accidents, there is typically a hue-and-cry about the money wasted on spaceflight, and the continuing problems with NASA, and the need to focus the resources used in these lofty pursuits on more earthbound matters, such as hunger, disease, poverty, war. Those issues need addressing, but it is not a zero-sum game, where we either address them or continue the human exploration of space. The world has the resources for both, even though sometimes these resources are not used efficiently.
For those who do not understand the necessity of human spaceflight, please put yourself in the position of early humans, huddled together in a small tribe somewhere, staring out at the wide world in awe and wonder. Everything outside of your territory is unknown and unknowable. The only way to learn about those things over the next hill is to go there. Go there. Go. Man’s third most driving impulse, after procreation and survival, is to go and learn. What’s over that hill? What’s on the other side of that river? What happens if I just sail west into the heretofore endless ocean? What does the bottom of the ocean look like? Go, see, learn.
That drive has a less-apparent secondary effect, which is that it promotes the ongoing survival of humanity. If all of humankind lived in one valley then it could easily be wiped out by disease, flood, fire, or other catastrophe. But once a few intrepid explorers leave the safety of the known world (the valley) and establish a permanent, sustainable presence somewhere else, then it is now exponentially more difficult to wipe out humanity. And if a new generation of explorers leaves the continent of the valley, it becomes nearly impossible to wipe out human life without wiping out virtually all life on earth. So our unstoppable curiosity has helped increase our chances of survival as a species.
But if looked at from a larger perspective, we are still in a very fragile position. A rogue asteroid (or nuclear power) could conceivably snuff out human life. And that would be that. We gave it the old college try, but oh well, it took a global catastrophe to kill us off, so what could we have done?
What we could have done is to continue our natural progress. When early man started spreading and hit the ocean, that was that, for the time being. Then, over time, extended ocean travel became possible. New lands were discovered. Mankind expanded. Now we face the ocean of space. It is orders-of-magnitude more daunting than an earthbound ocean, and represents a moat that contains humanity in a stranglehold on a tiny island (planet) in a vast ocean (space). It is imperative to the survival of mankind that we get off this island.
There are those who will argue that mankind is not worthy of preservation, and that the plethora of earthbound problems illustrates our inherent flaws. To those who are convinced of this, I can offer no argument. If the essential goodness of humanity as a whole is not apparent to you, then I cannot sway you, because it is, at heart, a matter of faith. I have faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, and I believe that if I have any higher purpose in life, it is to contribute to the survival and betterment of the species. And I see human spaceflight as the single most important undertaking of mankind, because it is inarguably the only means for our survival.
Someday the sun will burn out. Let’s hope that our descendents witness it on their version of CNN.