The new space race

Exploration is often inspired by politics, and certainly the quest for space travel in the last 50 years has been driven by political desire.

Exploration is often inspired by politics, and certainly the quest for space travel in the last 50 years has been driven by political desire.

But at its best, the push to leave Earth’s atmosphere has been stimulated by the most basic of human conditions: the need to discover the unknown.

And in its wake, space exploration has left an astonishing residual of knowledge, technology and well-being.

Forty years ago this week, John F. Kennedy’s dream to put a man on the moon came true — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the lunar landscape.

It took more than eight years and $25.4 billion (roughly $150 billion in today’s currency, but less than the U.S. spent in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007) to fulfil Kennedy’s dream.

Still stinging from the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Kennedy revved up the space race as a way to demonstrate superiority over communist Russia.

The Cold War became a moon shot. Armstrong and Aldrin were the passengers in a massive push to put America first.

Several more moon missions followed, but the vapour trail of the space program hasn’t always been positive for the Americans: the Russians sent the first unmanned probe to the moon and they established the first (albeit failed) space station; NASA’s history is dotted with tragedy, near-misses (Apollo 13) and outright catastrophe.

And the space program has become the focus of more than a few American debates over its cost and function.

Ironically, it took a less than visionary leader to put some spark back into NASA and its quest for the unknown. Five years ago, then president George W. Bush sought re-election on the back of an ambitious plan to send manned missions to Mars.

Part of the project would be to establish a base on the moon by 2020, as a jumping off point for further exploration.

The project, which captured the imagination of Americans, was to draw $12 billion over five years, some of it diverted from other NASA projects.

Again, the Russians have eyes on the same prize: Mars.

Much of this would seem to be little more than a search for inter-stellar bragging rights.

But the space race has accomplished much more.

The advances in rocketry, computerization top the list of NASA’s benefits, but it is a long list: health detection and treatment; structural and construction advances; water purification; enriched foods; scratch-resistant lenses; golf ball aerodynamics; sports training and equipment; battery and solar energy development; safety advances; weather forecasting; and plant research, to name a few.

The space program has been a boon to science (and, as a spinoff, created a whole new defence agenda), and sparked serious debate about the human condition.

And it has become a worldwide springboard for excellence and research. Two Canadians (Julie Payette and Robert Thirsk) are aboard the international space station complex that is the current focus of the space efforts of a number of countries, including ours.

So why does mankind keep pushing the boundaries?

“Forever, humans have asked themselves deep questions: Who are we? How did we get here? What is our relationship to the cosmos?’’ says Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, in 1971.

“I had a epiphany in space. I realized that all our cosmologies were flawed.

“Those pictures of deep space that we are getting from the Hubble Telescope make everything we know about the universe questionable. Hubble hammered the nail in the coffin of all the old ways of thinking. Is it a multi-variant cosmos, where the laws of physics are different in different regions? Even the word ‘infinity’ doesn’t do it justice.”

We push into space because we realize there are no true boundaries. Only the limitations of our knowledge and abilities hold us back, and those limitations should always be challenged.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

Just Posted

The Sylvan Lake Gulls celebrate a sixth inning home run from Nolan Weger on Sunday during a game against the Edmonton Prospects. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Historic opening weekend for Sylvan Lake Gulls

It wasn’t perfect, but perhaps that was the beauty of it. Fans… Continue reading

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Alberta reports 100 new cases of COVID-19

The Central zone sits at 218 active cases

Three Hills RCMP recovered stolen copper wire during recent investigation near Kneehill. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Fatal ATV rollover near Innisfail Saturday

A 77-year-old man from Red Deer County died Saturday after an ATV… Continue reading

Firefighters and emergency services workers helped celebrate Barry Young’s 85th birthday at Timberstone Mews on May 29. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Firefighters in central Alberta make birthdays special

A fire truck arriving outside your house is not normally good news.… Continue reading

A view of Two Jack Lake in Banff National Park is shown in this undated handout photo. More Canadians are expected to leave their passports at home this summer and hit the road in Canada as the weak loonie and low gas prices prompt a deeper exploration of their own country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Travel Alberta *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Report: Alberta losing residents to other parts of Canada

As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly winds down in Alberta, residents are continuing… Continue reading

A large number of supporters were out Saturday at a rally intended to bring awareness about including Hinduism in the grade 2 portion of the K-6 draft curriculum. As it stands now, Hinduism won’t be taught until grade 6 in the proposed draft curriculum. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Video: Rally to support adding Hinduism to draft curriculum draws crowd in Red Deer

The Hindu community in Red Deer came out in droves on Saturday… Continue reading

Orange shirts, shoes, flowers and messages are displayed on the steps outside the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 following a ceremony hosted by the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations in honour of the 215 residential school children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility in Kamloops, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Alberta city cancels Canada Day fireworks at site of former residential school

City of St. Albert says that the are where the display was planned, is the site of the former Youville Residential School

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Germany's Robin Gosens, left, celebrates Germany's Mats Hummels after scoring his side's fourth goal during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group F match between Portugal and Germany at the football arena stadium in Munich, Saturday, June 19, 2021. (Matthias Hangst/Pool Photo via AP)
Germany clicks at Euro 2020 with 4-2 win over Portugal

MUNICH (AP) — Germany finally clicked into gear at the European Championship,… Continue reading

Fans cheer on their team during the pre-game warmup of Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup semifinal with the Montreal Canadiens facing the Vegas Golden Knights, in Montreal, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
COVID-19 concerns give way to Habs Fever in Quebec as Montreal continues playoff run

MONTREAL — The sun hadn’t yet risen in Montreal on Friday morning… Continue reading

Coronavirus cases are on the rise from India to South Africa and Mexico, in a May 19, 2020 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
As Brazil tops 500,000 deaths, protests against president

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Anti-government protesters took to the streets in… Continue reading

A black bear cub forages for food along a salmon stream below a bear viewing spot for tourists in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area in Juneau, Alaska.  (File photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Bandit responsible for vehicle break-ins is a black bear

THORNTON, N.H. (AP) — Surveillance video helped police get to the bottom… Continue reading

FILE - In this April 25, 2019 file photo, Editor Rick Hutzell, center, gives a speech to his staff including Chase Cook, Nicki Catterlin, Rachael Pacella, Selene San Felice and Danielle Ohl at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. The editor of the Capital Gazette, which won a special Pulitzer Prize citation for its coverage and courage in the face of a massacre in its newsroom, is leaving the Maryland newspaper. Hutzell, who worked at the Annapolis paper for more than three decades, authored a farewell column that was published on the paper's website Saturday, June 19, 2021. (Ulysses Muoz/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
Editor of paper that endured newsroom shooting says goodbye

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The editor of the Capital Gazette, which won… Continue reading

Most Read