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.