If you are like me, the news from Cape Canaveral yesterday was as welcome as last year’s new Star Trek movie. President Obama announced plans for NASA that were very exciting. Recently, we had heard from former astronauts that Obama had abandoned the space program, but this was a welcome shot in the arm for all of us who grew up dreaming about the stars and wishing Scotty could beam us up out of bed in our space pajamas.
Mr. Obama said that American astronauts would make it to Mars in his lifetime, echoing the inspiring words of President John F. Kennedy who in 1961 told Americans that there would be a manned landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s. As one of those kids who watched in grainy black and white as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind in 1969, I believe that Mr. Obama is setting a goal that once again can be accomplished.
“We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history,” Mr. Obama said. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” These words show true support for a long-range plan that extends NASA’s mission in the right direction.
Those who had hoped for a return to the moon are missing the whole point, and as Mr. Obama explained it, there is no reason to look back when we can look forward. “We’ve been there before,” Obama said. “There’s a lot more of space to explore.” Indeed there is!
This is like music to the ears of someone who kept thinking and hoping for eventual deep space exploration. Yes, as a child I was caught up in the fantasy of outer space and even dreamed of exploring strange new worlds. It was William Shatner as Kirk whose voiceover in the opening credits for the original Star Trek series that got to me: “To seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
In the 1960s, many of us saw the distant future (and yes, that meant the year 2001) as a place for our space odyssey. Since then we have all been caught in a reality check. The space shuttle seemed for a long time to be the end of the line, and the International Space Station more or less a bucket of bolts that astronauts kept adding to and fixing as necessary.
Now all of us — the former space cadets and future space explorers — have something exciting to look forward to. Mr. Obama did not mince words when he said, “The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight, the human exploration of space, than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way; we can’t keep doing the same old things as before.”
If this doesn’t put a Flash in your Gordon, if this doesn’t Buck up your Rogers and Captain your Kirk, then nothing else will. I commend Mr. Obama for looking ahead to make the program something that makes sense in this new century. Everyone should be pleased with the notion that NASA’s past work is being honored by this commitment to a bright future for the agency and the prospect of new and exciting missions to come.
While I am sure there will be some critics of the President’s initiative, the move is a sound one on many levels. The most important thing to remember is that the moon is always there. Someday it makes sense that it will be a place for bases as a jumping off point for other missions. Huge interplanetary vessels will probably have to be constructed there to take advantage of the gravity and to avoid issues with leaving our atmosphere.
There is also the thought of Mars in our collective consciousness: it is a place of mystery, of little green men, of hopes and dreams that swirl in its iconic red dust. Reaching Mars is a most necessary emotional and physical first step to exploring the rest of our solar system and eventually going beyond to the stars.
Mr. Obama’s plan is visionary, yet it also makes sense and addresses the realities of our time and place. Until we make the next big discovery (damn it, Jim, we need to find those dilithium crystals fast), this is a smart way of looking beyond the clouds and reaching for the stars.