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Obama Says: To Infinity and Beyond!

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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.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “Buck up your Rogers and Captain your Kirk…”

    *Phew* There’s probably a slew of innuendos flying through lots of people’s brains right now.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Well, Brian, you know what Groucho Marx said: “Love flies out the door, when money comes innuendo.”

    Now to deal with that elephant in my pajamas.

  • Harold Jaynes

    Growing up in Huntsville Alabama, the space program was the heartbeat of the town. All of my friends parents worked for either NASA or NASA contractors. We knew all the German rocket scientists. As much as I love the shuttle program, I always thought it was saccharine in spite of technologies that have been developed because of it. If indeed they do go to Mars, it could revitalize the country and give us a sense of pride we need to re-establish. We all need a goal.

  • John Wilson

    Actually, the USA has had a robust and amazing space program all along: the UNMANNED space program.

    We’ve explored the far reaches of the solar system and we’re preparing to go further.

    It was stupid to ever consider sending another flesh-bot to the Moon.

    It’s equally stupid to send a flesh-bot to Mars.

    Sending humans into space at this point is a foolish exercise in Public Relations. It doesn’t even do THAT very well. What have we gotten out of the over-priced shuttle program? Neither material knowledge or useful PR.

    Put the MANNED program on idle while we explore with unmanned robots until we NEED to send a human, for whatever reason we discover.

    There is no good reason to send even one more human into space now. Wait. Explore. Learn.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Put the MANNED program on idle while we explore with unmanned robots until we NEED to send a human, for whatever reason we discover.

    Hmm. John, something tells me that there is no reason which you’d ever think is good enough.

    On the other hand, I think the only reason we need is the same one Edmund Hillary is said to have given when he was asked why he wanted to conquer Everest: Because it’s there.

    The unmanned space program has had some amazing triumphs, but its purpose is completely different. Saying we don’t need to send humans to Mars because we’ve already explored it with robots is like looking at a photo of Diamond Head and then cancelling your vacation to Hawaii.

    Although I do think the idea of sending a manned mission all the way to Mars only to orbit it and come back again is hare-brained. It was one thing doing that with the Apollo program, because it only takes a week to go to the Moon and come back. But Mars is an 18-month journey. It’d make as much sense as buying a plane ticket to Australia, then sitting in Sydney Airport and flying back home.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com Victor Lana

    I must agree with Dr. D on this. When you think about it, if you send the humans to Mars they might as well land.

    The way I have studied it, because of the orbits of Mars and Earth, you have one launch window every two years or so. It would be very costly to send people to Mars just to orbit. Would they orbit for a few months and then get the “window” to go back? I’m not sure how it works.

    Anyone who is more knowledgeable about this, please feel free to help us understand it better. Thanks.

  • Cindy

    There are people who will die because this govt in league with monopolies has bankrupted their retirement.

    I don’t really understand how someone could stand the idea of spending the money of these same people on trips to Mars. What about that old line that the population is constantly fed about responsibility? Clearly it doesn’t apply to govt.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Cindy, while I understand what you are saying, please think about the possibilities Mars offers us.

    Besides the glow of accomplishment after getting there, real opportunities to help the population exist on Mars.

    I have seen studies that show how scientists believe Mars can become a place for agriculture that will eventually feed our planet. It may also be a place where people will go to live to ease the problems of our overcrowded world.

    If the benefits are many in the future, we need to first get there. Obama’s plan is the first step in the process.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Cindy, if we waited until all humanity’s woes were solved before venturing on any kind of exploration then we’d never do anything at all. In fact we’d probably still be sitting in caves in East Africa worrying about the local leopard.

    The Mars proposal which makes the most sense to me is the most radical: a no-return mission.

    If our eventual intent is to settle Mars, then people are going to go there on one-way trips eventually anyway. Why not start as we mean to go on?

    Think of it as analagous to the voyages of the Puritan settlers to New England. They had no intention of ever returning to England and no means of doing so even if they did change their minds. Their survival depended on making the best of the resources available at their destination, and they were just fine with that.

    The English government, I dare say, was fine with it as well, since the Puritans were no longer their problem – politically, legally or economically.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Yes, Dr. D makes another good point. I have read about the “no return” missions to Mars, and it’s not as bad as it sounds.

    It is probably the most cost effective way, and once civilization is established there, many people will choose to stay as Dr. D mentioned in his example.

    The biggest issues are the six month voyage to get there and the two year orbit issue, but those things can be resolved. I imagine the other issues are fuel, oxygen, and food.

    I have read of massive robotic ships bringing all supplies and landing with them well before the no return astros come.

    So, much to think about, but we need to start somewhere.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Their survival depended on making the best of the resources available at their destination, and they were just fine with that.

    Yea, because they were still getting there by water and there was a great possibility that what they had in England would be present on another continent(Trees[=]Oxygen,soil,drinkable water,etc). I don’t believe you can sustain life on Mars without shipping supplies via these “massive robotic ships”.
    I agree that they should be landing to do research but to never come back sounds a little far fetched

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I agree that they should be landing to do research but to never come back sounds a little far fetched

    Only at first glance, Brian. Certainly some supplies will need to be shipped to Mars, either with the astronauts/settlers or ahead of time on board unmanned rockets. But most of the resources the settlers will need can be found in situ including water – LOTS of water.

    Just as the Puritans had the technology to hunt and farm for what they needed, so we have the technology to extract the materials we need from Mars itself.

  • John Wilson

    “Because it’s there” is one of the stupidest reasons ever given for anything. It’s testimony to the shallow thinking of people that they pretend to see profundity in such drivel. As bad as “build it and they will come”, etc. It’s mock profundity.

    Many of the original settlers from England DID return to England, and many died prematurely from poor adaptabiity to the new land.

    Every dollar wasted on showbiz excursions into space to accomplish nothing detracts ten or a hundred dollars from unmanned excursions that have higher returns and lower risks and costs.

    Ironically, manned flights don’t even accomplish PR anymore. No one gets excited or interested in the various shuttle flights, unless there’s a crash. It’s just close space NASCAR.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I haven’t done enough research but I would think that the idea of actually living on Mars would go beyond just having the basic necessities to survive. But, I’m torn. If we have the technology to support life out there then we also must have the technology to do further research and not have it be the guessing game that the Puritans had to take part in.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    To Doc (and to all) –

    “Because it’s there” – that’s the reason we humans explore, right? That’s how I explained to my wife the reason I love to climb mountains…before she put the kibosh on me ever climbing again (I really shouldn’t have told her about the time I almost died twice in the same day climbing Mt. Washington in the Olympic Peninsula).

    I was also raised on Sci-Fi – Heinlein, Asimov, Brin, Bear, Benford, Herbert, Zelazny, et al – so I feel the call to learn, to see, to explore as strongly as anyone. I get exploration, the very human need to take giant leaps to land feet dry, disturbing the dust of other worlds.

    BUT as the years have gone by I’ve become a pragmatist, too. While I want to see us with a moon base, I also know that this is neither practical nor necessary for our national advancement or our national pride.

    What IS necessary for our national advancement and our national pride…is MARS.

    President Obama’s generally been following the advice given by Buzz Aldrin (who sees things a bit differently than do Neil Armstrong and other astronauts). Buzz said quite plainly that the Constellation program was a waste of time. It neither provided a heavy-lift rocket as strong as the Saturn V of the 1960’s, nor did it provide us with anything we haven’t already done.

    What he suggested was that (1) instead of building a rocket that would go from dirtside Earth to wherever, extend the Shuttle program to expand the ISS to the point where we can build an actual honest-to-goodness starship that would be able to go from Low Earth Orbit to Mars and return (which would make trips to the moon a bit of a yawner).

    Buzz had a better idea, and to heck with the protect-my-space-industry rice-bowl politics that won’t even get us to where we’ve already been before.

    But until we’ve got the spaceship capability Buzz described, there is no NEED to put more men and women on the moon. Instead, use the funds to speed the development of said spaceship and other spaceborne wonders such as the James Webb Space Telescope…and its already-planned successor, a planet-finder capable of detecting earth-size planets with acceptable atmospheres.

    The Constellation program was over budget and was behind on its progress, and did not appreciably advance our capabilities. The idea suggested by Buzz Aldrin – and apparently followed by President Obama – is a FAR better use of our taxpayer dollars.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    What I got from Obama’s speech at the Cape at the weekend is that, with regard to our future in space, he seems to get it – in a way that few other presidents have beyond the rub-our-rivals’-noses-in-moondust kind of level.

    He also gets that when a living legend like Buzz Aldrin speaks out, you sit up and listen. Buzz always was one for thinking outside the box: it got him into trouble a few times, which was why the level-headed Neil Armstrong was chosen to command Apollo 11 ahead of him. But his way of thinking might just provide the kick-start to get the general public interested in and inspired by space again.

    I’m excited, anyway.

    But I suppose I must stop, as Ruvy will be along in a minute to explain that we shouldn’t be wasting our time thinking about Mars when our country’s broke and we’re all about to be measured for our labour camp pyjamas.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for all the comments, but especially to Glenn for saying things so eloquently.

    And Dr. D is right (again) that water is already available on Mars. The scientists will have ways to use that water to plant crops, trees, and eventually even change the atmosphere.

    It sounds like science fiction, but its mostly science and that’s what is so great about the plan. Obama does get it, and that means moving forward instead of stagnation.

    People are bored with the shuttle flights because nothing seems to come from them. While they are wonderful to watch, they belong to a different time.

    I think Buzz has a great idea, and maybe that first starship should be called the U.S.S. Aldrin.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    No way.

    U.S.S. Enterprise is my choice, Captain James Kirk, commander.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Vic – thanks for the compliment.

    Intellectually, I’m with you on the U.S.S. Aldrin – after all, any moon-walking septuagenarian who not only flew among the stars but also had the cojones to go on Dancing With the Stars deserves his name proudly displayed on the hull of a spaceship!

    But emotionally – “Space, the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise…” That would indeed bring tears of joy to my eyes. I remember attending a small presentation by Gene Roddenberry back at Mississippi State University back in ’81, and I wonder if he ever understood that he has a place in the first rank – and perhaps even at the head of that first rank – of those who did the most to bring the concept of spaceflight, of life in space, of voyages throughout that vasty Final Frontier, within reach of the dreams of the common man.

    U.S.S. Enterprise it is!

    …and this dyed-in-the-wool liberal can’t help but think how fitting it was that Roddenberry’s Star Trek also had as main characters an African-American woman (in the time of the Civil Rights struggle), a Russian and a Chinese (played by a Japanese) (during the time of the Cold War), and even a half-breed alien. And let’s not forget television’s first-ever interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura…but she seemed a bit tame compared to the more…outre girls with green or blue skins.

    How utterly visionary was that!

  • John Wilson

    The real excitement of space exploration is discovering information about our universe and the challenge of devising instruments to further that knowledge.

    Anything involving sending people is a waste of money and threatens to undermine real knowledge.

    We need more Hubbles in space and fewer Aldrins.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Anything involving sending people is a waste of money and threatens to undermine real knowledge.

    False dilemma. Manned space exploration is much less about extending our knowledge of the cosmos – which as you rightly say, can be done much more effectively using robots – and more about broadening our horizons, going places we’ve never gone before and, in the long run, rendering the human species extinction-proof.

    I’d say that’s worthwhile.

    In the meantime, here’s a photo of Sydney, Australia. It’s quite breathtaking and shows the Harbour Bridge in unprecedented detail. Now you don’t need to go. Shame about all the great wine, beer, food and surf you’re missing out on, but at least you’ve broadened your horizons.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Quite a spam attack, Dreadful. Glad you guys are on top of it.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Glenn, I am with you on Star Trek all the way. Compared to a rather weird and a bit lame Lost in Space, Roddenberry dealt with all the issues of the day and had vision far beyond the time and place. The idea of a “starship” is just so awesome, and that fueled so much of what we’re talking about here today.

    Just think, the communicator he imagined looks a lot like today’s cellphone. Beam me up, Scotty!!!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    The odd thing is, Roddenburry’s vision of a global federation may well become our model and best hope for what the future holds for the presently warring and discontent world.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Yes, Roger, and it was not just global but interplanetary. Everyone was living and working side by side in peace. Maybe Glenn is right; that first starship should be the U.S.S. Enterprise!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    @ #25:

    Some new spam-throttling procedures are in place. It’s keeping the horrible little beasts off the threads but unfortunately is cluttering up the Fresh Comments page. I’m told a remedy will be put in place sometime in the next few days. Until then, bear with us! :-)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, Victor. Truth be told, I see no better future for humankind. Live and let live.

    We’ve got to go beyond our petty, nationalistic and ethnic differences and truly unite (even if we don’t face a common enemy, because the enemy is inside us.) Let each community live according to their best lights.

    Remember the “non-interference” dictum on the part of the Federation, no kind of enforcing of the same, universal standards. It’s up to each and every community to struggle through and find its own way. And when all is said and done, even the Klingons can be brought to the community of nations.

    Again, in my estimate, we have no better hope, no better prospect.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Glad to hear it, Dreadful. I think it’s only temporary but yes, it debilitates the “Fresh Comments” page.

  • Levi

    I can understand both sides of this issue. I mean, after the bailouts and the gross negligence of both the corporate world and our government’s lack of oversight, seeing them spend even MORE money is a difficult pill to swallow. On the other hand though, remember when you were younger and watched the Jetsons and thought, man I wish life could be like that…

    Well trips to Mars are what make that future a reality. The new technology that will have to be created and invented to allow a sustainable human presence could lead to even better ways to live on the planet we currently inhabit. That would be a good thing. Effective stewardship of the assuredly meager resources we could load on a boat we could conceivably build, might set a better example for us as Americans.

    Who knows what sort of super neat elements and metals or resources we could dig up on Mars too? Maybe there is some sort of melange that cures cancer? We’ll never know unless we go and robots are great but I imagine a robot exploring an environment and then I imagine my 4 year old son doing the same, no contest as to who would find more stuff and more interesting stuff.

    That’s my two bits!

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    I appreciate your thoughts, Levi. I think we must be optimistic about the possibilites Mars has to offer. There may be a super fuel there, one that would allow our ships to travel great distances. Who knows what we will find?

    The cost of space exploration is always going to be an issue, but the price we pay for not going may be greater than we have ever imagined or feared.

  • Marc Donovan

    When they started the Apollo program there was a big argument that is just as valid today as it was then. The scientists wanted a shuttle to get to low-earth orbit, build a station and use the station to launch trips to the moon. If you are going to Mars, that is the only way to do it that makes sense.

    But just saying “we will do it,” and not providing the funding nor the plan, is just grandstanding.