The space race began in the ashes of World War II when the Allies took trophies from the German rocket program. The Russians took missiles and dismantled production facilities and transported them home. We got Werner von Braun. Von Braun, a poster boy for the Master Race, with his brains and good looks, became the head of our space program.

The race began in earnest when the Russians launched Sputnik I (traveler) into orbit above the Earth. It sent repetitive radio signals for 22 days that anyone could tune into. It burned up when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. A replica of the shiny metal ball and its long antennas hangs in the United Nations building.

Sputnik radicalized American education, as we played catch-up in the space race. In my school, the weekly free period was cancelled. On January 31 of the following year, the U.S. launched Explorer into space. In 1961, the Soviet Union launched the first man into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, who had a big smile, as I recall. Later that year, Alan Shepard became the first American into space. This was the year that President Kennedy challenged us to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

And so it went, back and forth, until July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped off the Eagle Lander, on the Apollo 11 mission, onto the surface of the moon, leaving indelible footprints in the lunar dust—indelible because there were no natural forces on the moon to erode them. It ended the decade with the biggest whoop-ah imaginable. People stopped what they were doing around the world to watch the moon landing on TV. We had trounced the Russians after their early lead in space. Woowza! (see my essay/poem “Moon Landing.”)

In all, the Apollo program sent a dozen men to the moon and back, in five separate missions, the last being Apollo 17 in 1972. Neither the Russians nor anyone else from Earth has landed on the moon since that time.

Manned flights into space continued with the Space Shuttle program, on our part. The Russians put up their numerous Soyuz manned flights. Then came the International Space Station, and then came…Star Trek. Not exactly. Actually, the first Star Trek series ended in 1969. Its theme was “Space, the final frontier.” The point I am making is that during the time of actual space exploration, imaginary space exploration was flying right alongside the real thing in the form of the Star Ship USS Enterprise.

Let us back track, shall we, to the 19th Century and Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. In it, Verne imagined that a gigantic cannon, in Florida, interestingly, would fire a giant projectile into space that would send three men to impact on the moon. Verne had the right idea and even got some of the details right, but the technology was wrong. It would take a rocket not a cannon to do the job. Rocket technology at that time was not developed sufficiently to imagine such a thing.

By 1968 and the startling film 2001: A Space Odyssey, space flight became very well imagined, indeed, and beyond. The beyond part was the metaphorical journey concocted by writer Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, and enacted by actor Kier Dullea. Ah, what did all those colored lights signify, and the monolith and the aged Dullea pointing up at the glowing Star Child?

Well, for one thing, it meant that artistic vision had caught up with the real thing even before man actually landed on the moon, in its feel for space flight in a weightless environment, and added a vision of death and rebirth. The movie took nothing away from the thrill of the accomplishment of Apollo 11. But it placed science fiction on a footing to supply interesting space stories filled with beings and creatures and states of consciousness not realized by subsequent actual space missions. In other words, science fiction began to chip away at the rational for spending billions of dollars on additional space missions.

To wit, why send men and women to Mars?

Mars is anywhere from 34 million to 248 million miles from Earth, depending on the two planets’ elliptical orbits. It takes approximately a year to reach Mars from Earth by present means. By contrast, on average, the moon in only 240,000 miles from our home planet. Some kind of sleep or suspended animation state would be required for the astronauts going and coming. And here’s the big question: what would the crew do when it gets there? Remember those two Mars rovers? Do you remember their names?

If case you’re wondering, Spirit and Opportunity are still at it, motoring around, collecting surface samples and sending clear images back to Earth after landing on the Red Planet in 2004. They have endured long past their expected expiration date. You can follow their progress on marsrover.nasa.gov. For my tax dollars, their mission is worth it, at least for the reason that they have shown fairly conclusively that there is no life as we know it on Mars. Nothing like what you have seen on Star Trek or Star Wars. Lots or dirt, rocks, hills, spills—all in all, a pretty good robot adventure, but nothing to get really, really excited about. You can travel virtually to Mars on Google Mars.

What about the International Space Station? Yes, what about it? The latest news from the International Space Station is that one of the two toilets is clogged.

President George W. Bush spoke of establishing a permanent base on the moon by 2020. Why? We’ve been there, done that. None of the other planets in our solar system is friendly for landing humans on the surface in the way that our moon and Mars are. They are better viewed from a distance. And from a distance we have seen the planets from fly-by space craft, magnificent images, going back to the Viking series.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been another great success story, sending back images practically from the beginning of time, galaxies fantastic distances from Earth, spectacular images of stars and nebular gas and dust we will never ever touch, if the laws of physics hold. In Star Trek, there is warp speed. In reality, rockets travel far below the speed of light.

Writing in the July 19, 2009 The New York Times, Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, opines that “What NASA needs now in the power of the Word.” By “Word” what he seems to mean is a well-articulated philosophy of purpose. He gives the example of Darwin, who spoke the Word on evolution. NASA needs a new Darwin or Plato. Werner von Braun spoke the Word for NASA in his time, telling us that as a species we need to build a “bridge to the stars.” We need to do this because apparently we are the only sentient beings around, and our star, the Sun, is slowly dying.

The key word here is “slowly.” We’ve got several billion years of sunshine left. So there’s really no hurry to build that bridge to the stars. We have plenty of time to perfect ourselves, or destroy ourselves, as far as the sun is concerned.

It took civilization thousands of years to produce the ancient Greeks, who, in a stupendous feat of simple observation and reason, figured out the diameter of the Earth. It is only in the last several centuries that man produced the telescope and instruments capable of measuring events beyond Earth with real accuracy. In other words, it has taken mankind millennia just to begin to perceive the universe we live in: billions of stars and galaxies, billions of light years away. It gets bigger and older every time we look. Certainly, the universe was not created as our plaything, since we will never get to play with 99.999 percent of it. It’s just too damn far away. Which is sad, when you think about it.

What remains of space travel is domesticating it; making space travel available to the paying customer. Anybody with the millions to pay for it, can today hitch a ride aboard a large rocket and experience the thrill of blasting up up and away above Earth’s atmosphere. They say the view is fantastic. Prices need to come down for you and me to make the trip. Years ago, I met a woman living alone in London who claimed to have purchased a ticket to travel into space. She showed me papers. The walls of her room were covered with postcards.

It is yet too early to see how this century will turn out, how good it will be, how bad it will be, what will be its major themes. One theme that has announced its ugly presence is terrorism. By mid-century, the world as we know it might be recognizable, or not. A century hence? Today’s prophets warn of global warning, rising seas, deadly storms in abundance. It could be that civilization will be preoccupied with simple survival in unfriendly environments of our own making, including too many people devouring earth’s resources like ants.

One thing is certain, what we imagine and do not encounter in nature, we will try to create: be it new species, enhanced human powers, higher states of consciousness, travel at the speed of thought, cities under domes. New prophets and poets will arise heralding new visions. Meanwhile, you and I can look up at the stars, knowing what we know, what we think we know, and wonder.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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