Some Thoughts About Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

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The road to a bright future. Image credit: Jake Rocheleau, 2 July, 2012

When I was a young child, long before I received my first telescope as a Christmas gift from my parents, I often looked up at the moon and thought to myself, this is what the moon will look like in a hundred years from now, a thousand years from now, long after I’m gone.

While looking up at the full moon the other day, I fondly recalled those thoughts of so long ago and thought to myself, here I am, the same person, as if transported through time, the living embodiment of those thoughts. This reflection gave me an inner peace and solace in a world that has gone mad, confirming for me that I am still that same young man I was on that night, just 55 orbits around the sun later. I remember how great life was back then, how simple it was.

As a child, I also remember the beautiful, dark sky of rural downstate New York in the early 1960s. The Milky Way and the Galactic Center took your breath away! In fact, it was so bright, it cast a shadow and you could almost read by it. Those vistas have been gone for decades now and along with them, the inspiration that energized a nation to reach for the moon and the stars and so we did.

Looking at the stars and the beauty of the night sky inspired humankind since recorded history and that’s now gone. That, combined with the ability to spread bad ideas at the speed of light, it’s no wonder we have the emergence of new fringe beliefs and the exponential rise in superstition and violent religious extremism concurrent with an almost complete breakdown of society – one has to only look at the daily news and the utter farce the US National election cycle has become. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum of any kind; what we have today is an intellectual and moral vacuum born of a lack of inspiration.

Space exploration, the stars, rockets, planets with rings, moon craters, galaxies, exploding stars were all “cool”, were inspiring and the stuff kids dreamed about; astronauts were almost mythical heroes. Where did all that go?

We don’t look outward or upward anymore (literally or metaphorically); we have become selfish, cynical and inward looking. Those great Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s were made possible by individuals whose moral fiber and character were cast in the mold of service, born of courage and the desire for authentic human progress and exploration.

The legacy of those individuals and their missions lives on in the astronaut corps of today and was exemplified in SM4, the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, STS-125 in 2009 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe cancelled SM4 following the Challenger disaster, citing too many uncertainties for a mission that wasn’t of “critical national importance”. The Hubble Space Telescope is an iconic representation of discovery and exploration for a good reason.

What Administrator O’Keefe failed to recognize is that it doesn’t matter what the mission is, whether its servicing an orbiting, unmanned observatory or a resupply mission to a fledgling lunar outpost, it represents us, human kind, in our tireless quest of discovery and exploration. That telescope has pushed back the frontiers of our knowledge and understanding and the literal horizon of what we can see! Spaceflight is an enterprise fraught with dangers and risks and the brave astronauts accept those risks when they sign up for the job.

Following O’Keefe’s resignation, new NASA Administrator Michael Griffin rallied the troops and managed to put SM4 back on the Space Shuttle’s docket. The mission was a brilliant success and extended the life of Hubble by at least a decade, to say nothing of the enhancements and upgrades. But these astronauts are a diminishing breed. Neil Armstrong, the Commander of Apollo XI and the first man to set foot on another world, passed away in 2012 at the age of 82; the remaining two astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are in their mid 80s. Who is going to take their place?

Since the end of mission for the Space Shuttle program, we don’t even have a national low-earth-orbit booster but yet, we successfully completed six manned missions to the moon over 40 years ago! We now have to rely on private enterprise and foreign governments to fulfill our commitments to ISS. Why wasn’t this a national priority when everyone knew the end date for the Space Shuttle program?

Isaac Newton died in 1727, Albert Einstein died the year I was born and Stephen Hawking has passed away and nature wasn’t very kind to him. Yes, we have some very smart people around but we’re simply not producing any more Einsteins or Hawkings and I don’t see that changing – ever.

Image credit: Melissa Kendall, 2011

Yet, I am still hopeful that, in the end, the light of reason will be victorious and that vision of an inspired world, united together looking upwards and outwards towards the stars, our future and our destiny, exemplified by that young child chasing Juno along a Florida Beach, will come to be a reality. The light of reason will win out and we will prevail.

In what could only be described as a visual metaphor of a bright, hopeful, limitless future, this image, iconic as it is inspirational, epitomizes what is the best in us, the potential we have to soar to new heights, a young child chasing Juno along a Florida beach as the intrepid explorer slips the surly bonds of Earth into a brilliant blue, limitless sky!

It’s important to remember that we are evolving on two parallel tracks and which one we choose will ultimately decide our legacy, who we are and where we will be. Let us chose the right path.

A quick, interactive web-based version of Stellarium is available here Tonight's Sky. When you launch the application, it defaults to north-facing and your location (on mobile and desktop).

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