Vail Valley Voices: Why Mars mission matters
May 5, 2012
Slashing NASA’s budget may have seemed like a good idea by those trying to curb spending and start the reduction of our national deficit spending. After all, why spend money up there when we so desperately need it down here?
But what does it truly mean when the United States of America no longer has the ability to launch a human into space?
The race for space was officially on when in 1957 the Russians successfully put Sputnik into orbit. What many of us probably do not remember is that the Russians were also the first to send an animal into space and the first to send a man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the Earth.
The truth is that, until NASA’s Apollo Space Program, we were playing catchup to the Russians.
The tide began to turn our way in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency. He declared that by the end of the decade, we will put a man on the moon and safely return him home.
Let there be no misunderstanding. The true reason that the U.S. funded NASA and charged them with the task of sending a man to the moon is because we were at war. We had to flex our superiority. The cold war with Russia was raging. The new technologies gained along the way were merely a bonus.
Recommended Stories For You
Anyone who lived through the 1960s will remember what a troubled time it really was. We had the Cuban missile crisis, assignations, race riots and a very unpopular war in Vietnam, when every day on the nightly news it was reported how many of our soldiers were killed that day.
But through it all, the one thing that kept this country together was the space program. I can remember that the people of the United States as a whole stopped whatever they were doing to watch live, every single launch and splash down. And a funny thing happened along the way.
The people of this country were learning and becoming very interested in science. Without realizing it, every newscast concerning the space program was also a lesson in physics.
We all learned about gravitational forces. That’s why the rocket engines were so massive. They needed to be able to reach escape velocity so that they could break free of our planet’s gravitational hold on us.
We learned about our atmosphere and the lack of one on the moon. We better understood our place in the solar system.
We better understood distances: that the moon was 250,000 miles from Earth, and that the Earth was 93,000,000 miles from the sun. Every school kid new exactly how much he or she would weigh on the moon, and why.
Then, on that fateful day, July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Human history was forever changed.
National pride soared to an all-time high, and the rest of the world looked at us with awe. We were proud to be Americans. Manned missions to the moon halted in 1972. Why? Because the Russians stopped their moon program. We had won. But what did we win?
It has now been 40 years since the last man walked on the surface of the moon. That means that there have been at least two full generations of Americans who have not had the privilege of experiencing for themselves the pride and excitement of witnessing such a remarkable event.
I think that it is not a coincidence that our country’s school rankings in math and science are falling further and further behind.
The NASA manned space program was fuel for the imagination. To put a little perspective on this, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were 13 and 14 when we first put a man on the moon.
NASA is still doing ground-breaking work. A perfect example of this would be to Google “Most important image ever taken.” You’ll see an image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Hubble was pointed to what appeared to be a completely dark region of space. That section of space would be approximately the size of a single grain of rice held at arms length. The Hubble stayed fixed on that point for a little less than 12 days, 300 orbits around the Earth. Photons that have been traveling for 13.2 billion years revealed an image of 10,000 galaxies, and each galaxy containing billions of stars.
This photo was a breakthrough and tremendously helped us understand the universe within which we live. But sadly, too few people have ever seen this image, let alone understood what it represents.
The space shuttle has flown its last mission.
The United States no longer has the ability to send a man into space, near orbit or beyond, and will not for the foreseeable future.
NASA no longer has the ability to update or do repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope. It is projected that the last image the Hubble will send back to Earth will be sometime in 2015.
Economic factors now dictate that NASA will use only robots for future space exploration. Space robots have already done great work for us and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many decades to come.
However, the next unmanned mission to Mars will surely get an honorable mention on most news stations and a small written news story buried deep within newspapers.
Now try to imagine if a visionary president made a pledge to provide funding for NASA to put humans on Mars and bring them home safely within the next 20 years. What would be the impact on this nation?
The naysayers would condemn this project for trying to needlessly bankrupt the economy.
But I truly believe that this would be the longest-lasting stimulus package that would have the greatest and most profound effect on our country, both economically and psychologically.
This would be the ultimate uniter. Every degree of progress would be national news. The astronauts, both men and women, would once again become heroes and role models. The journey itself would take six months to get there, and the whole world would be watching. The build-up would be so intense and when the day came, and the first humans set foot on Mars, there would be no doubt on why we did it.
But perhaps the greatest accomplishment will have been that a new generation was raised with the understanding that science is cool and that dreams are attainable.
Unfortunately, the probability of a NASA manned mission to Mars seems unlikely in my or my children’s
That is, unless the Chinese announce that they are going.
Nick Huzella is an Eagle-Vail resident.