Chapter 2: Start with Why?

First picture from my telescope 🔭

The Apollo program, (building on the two that preceded it), was so successful that within a decade, they had put a man on the Moon, meeting JFKs challenge. From 1968 to 1972, we had 6 successful missions that allowed 12 humans to walk on the surface of the Moon. Without delay, there were plenty of conspiracy theories about whether we did actually land or not. This flat-earth type nonsense still drags on during the age of the internet. But even a small amount of critical thinking would show the indelible impact this program had on us. The technological advancements made were astounding, and transferred over to improve the lives of ordinary humans. The impacts on our arts are too many to list. Science fiction movies borrowed heavily from these missions. The sciences have taken giant leaps forward due to our learnings from this program.

Smoke and flames signal the opening of a historic journey as the Saturn V clears the launch pad. Credit NASA

This has to be the greatest & the most successful team effort in the history of humankind.

In an interview years later, Armstrong praised the “hundreds of thousands” of people behind the project. “Every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault.’”

The moon now seems to be within reach and in our backyard. Even taking it’s picture seems routine, let alone doing another moon landing. We treat landing on the moon as if it requires nothing more than hopping on the Amtrak regional line. Similar to the railway revolution in the 1920s, all the engineering leaps needed — to maintain an accurate trajectory, to sustain life in the harshness of space, to overcome a multitude of contingencies— have all become a matter of routine. Every little detail has been documented, every nagging issue has been fixed, and every theory that needed testing, has been tested.

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We can now use the same blueprints to look further, seek new challenges, conquer new frontiers. Our current goals include — going back to the Moon with NASA’s Artemis mission (twin sister of Apollo), several other moon missions, and building a colony on Mars with SpaceX.

Rest of our solar system also provides enough opportunities & challenges. It’s achievable, as proved by the success of several of our unmanned probes, yet challenging enough with astronauts, that it will keep us busy for some time now. A round trip to Mars, for example, would take 3 years. Jupiter & its Moons are even further out. Not an easy task.

It now all comes down to funding, which is directly proportional to public interest. The Artemis mission’s goal is to reignite our interest and imagination. Future missions will only become a reality if we make them so. There is always enough scientific curiosity to drive us.

So even with the current goals in our sights, skeptics of the space program have plenty of questions.The first thing we need to answer is, why even invest in the space program?

Well you can think of a few reasons. The most compelling for many is the mere viability of our planet. Life in a hostile Universe, as far as we know, is rare and very precious. If we humans continue to be a one planet species, we could succumb to some cosmological event. Or even worse, figure out a way to destroy ourselves. War, plague, global warming, or some technology like AI going out of hand. As species go, humans are quite unique in the understanding of our mortality and yet have the means and enough bravado to cause our own self destruction.

So finding another home could be the only way to guarantee our survival, a sentiment shared by Elon Musk and several other public figures. Make no mistake though, trraforming is not easy - any place in Antarctica is warmer and wetter than any place on Mars.

Family picture with the Astroid Belt. Artist’s concept of the Psyche spacecraft. Credit: Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Then, we need more resources. Space exploration could provide an unlimited supply of raw materials as we need to support rapid population growth, coupled with our insatiable need for a better life. Which in the current world translates to the need for better, faster and cheaper electronics.

All of these devices from smartphones to SmartTV’s are made from rare Earth metals. Due to their limited accessibility, they are susceptible to price manipulation. Even worse, they are not extracted in an ethically or environmentally conscious way. But since these metals are fundamental to our needs, everyone is happy to look the other way.

So mining in space could give us a new source for satisfying our needs. Though unlikely, we might find new materials out there. What’s more likely is that we’ll find the same elements available in the rest of the solar system, as asteroids are really just debris from the time of creation of our own solar system. Several missions have already been done and in August 2022, NASA plans to target astroid Psyche!

Toy figures of the original cast of Star Trek series. Source

For me personally though, the most compelling reason is that space exploration is the next big challenge for humankind. I have grown up, like most of this generation, on a staple diet of science fiction movies and television series. From ‘Star Trek’ to even ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, we have enjoyed enough far-fetched plots that wormholes and time-travel are not vague science fiction concepts anymore. Our imagination, along with our understanding of them, gets us closer to proving them possible.

Recent discovery of Einstein’s gravitational waves has sparked a fire of reality into these science fiction theories.

An artist’s impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars. Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL

The mere fact that supermassive objects can have such an effect on space, like ripples in spacetime, means our imagination can continue to roam free!

So in short, why go back to the Moon, why travel to Mars, why look beyond? The answer is probably best summarized by a line from NBC’s show ‘The West Wing

“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave and we looked over the hill and we saw fire and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the West and we took to the sky. The history of mankind is on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.”

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