THE SAGAN SERIES - End of an Era: The Final Shuttle Launch

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,

not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

(John F. Kennedy 1962)

We had an expansive run in the '60s and '70s.

You might have thought,

as I did then,

that our species would be on Mars before the century was over.

But instead, we've pulled inward.

Robots aside,

we've backed off from the planets and the stars.

I keep asking myself:

Is it a failure of nerve or a sign of maturity?

Maybe it's the most we could reasonably have expected.

In a way, it's amazing that it was possible at all:

We sent a dozen humans on week-long excursions to the Moon,

missions that returned a wealth of data,

but nothing of short-term, everyday,

bread-on-the-table practical value,

or at least not much.

They lifted the human spirit, though.

They enlightened us about our place in the Universe.

A highly visible program affecting our view of ourselves

might clarify the fragility of our planetary environment

and the common peril

and responsibility

of all the nations and peoples of Earth.

There's something more.

Spaceflight speaks to something deep inside us

many of us, if not all.

A scientific colleague tells me about a recent trip to the New Guinea highlands

where she visited a stone age culture

hardly contacted by Western civilization.

They were ignorant of wristwatches,

soft drinks, and frozen food.

But they knew about Apollo 11.

They knew that humans had walked on the Moon.

They knew the names of Armstrong

and Aldrin

and Collins.

They wanted to know who was visiting the Moon these days.

Projects that are future-oriented,

that, despite their political difficulties,

can be completed only in some distant decade

are continuing reminders

that there will be a future.

Winning a foothold on other worlds

whispers in our ears

that we're more than Picts

or Serbs

or Tongans.

We're humans.

In meantime people everywhere hunger to understand.

The idea that we've now understood something

never grasped by anybody

who ever lived before.

that exhilaration,

especially intense for the scientists involved,

but perceptible to nearly everybody

propagates through the society,

bounces off walls,

and comes back at us.

It encourages us to address problems in other fields

that have also never before been solved.

It increases the general sense of optimism in the society.

It gives currency to critical thinking of the

sort urgently needed

if we are to solve hitherto intractable social issues.

It helps stimulate a new generation of scientists.

The more science in the media,

especially if methods are described,

as well as conclusions and implications

the healthier, I believe, the society is.

There's plenty of housework

to be done here on Earth,

and our commitment to it must be steadfast.

But we're the kind of species

that needs a frontier

for fundamental biological reasons.

Every time humanity stretches itself

it receives a jolt of productive vitality

that can carry it for centuries.

Yuri Romanenko,

on returning to Earth

after what was then the longest space flight in history, said

"The Cosmos is a magnet...

Once you've been there,

all you can think of

is how to get back."

Worldwide military budget vs. Worldwide space budget

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