Tuesday, July 26, 2005

With Eyes Turned to the Heavens

And once again, we look towards the sky. After a long delay since the last shuttle launch, NASA has put human beings into space. All systems have been checked, both previously known and newly discovered problems have been fixed, and NASA can resume its mission and again explore the final frontier.

Space exploration is the only way to answer so many of our most fundamental questions. Where did we come from? Where are we going? How did this accident that we call life occur on this random rock that we call Earth? The answers are out there, and the only way to get them is to send a satellite to study the sun, a probe to crash into a comet, and human beings to go into space. The only way to see what is out there is to actually go there. There is no other option.

For nearly 50 years, we have been exploring space. Starting from the humble beginnings of Sputnik and the early Mercury launches, we now have satellites that have left the solar system and men that have landed on the moon. Yet we have so much more to learn, and so much further to go. The Hubble Space Telescope has taken the clearest pictures yet of the distant universe, looking not only out into space but back into time. We have seen the birth and death of stars and discovered new planets. But this is only the beginning. The Hubble needs to be replaced with a more powerful telescope before it is retired, and even then it should only be retired when it is no longer useful.

Space exploration is filled with dangers and its history is marked with failures. The first attempted launch of an American satellite never got off the ground. The first manned Apollo mission ended in flames. The third planned moon landing nearly ended in disaster. And, of course, there are the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia. But what all of the victims and near-victims of these disasters have in common, other than their drive to explore beyond our world, is the drive that exploration should not end with their death. They went out into the great unknown, and would want others to follow them.

Today, after an additional delay due to a faulty fuel sensor, Discovery lifted off the launch pad. It will dock with the International Space Station, taking much needed supplies to the crew that has been living there, and perform scientific experiments and tests of new shuttle procedures before it touches down. NASA has worked for two and a half years to make this mission as safe as it can be, and the final delay shows how seriously NASA is taking every possible issue that crops up, but even so, space flight is inherently dangerous. The crew knows this, and yet they are flying into space anyway.

No matter what happens on this mission, and all hopes and expectations are that it will be safe and successful, we can never stop exploring and never stop learning. Be it in shuttles, space stations, or something as yet untested, we must continue to fly beyond Earth and out into the great expanse of space. There is no other option for a species that has a higher consciousness. We have to explore, to learn, to know.

Good luck and godspeed to NASA and the crew of Discovery. Come home safely with the proof that we can still bring astronauts safely to the Earth, and with the message that we have to keep looking for more and can never be satisfied with what we know right now.