Dawn, a remarkable little craft about the size of an AMC Pacer (or a city bus with its solar panels fully deployed), helped in the study of Mars, gave scientists key data about a potentially significant asteroid called Vesta, and will conclude its seven-year mission in the weeks ahead by shooting, orbiting and sending home images of Ceres, a relatively close-by celestial body recently re-categorized as a “dwarf planet.”
Why should this matter? Well, maybe it doesn’t; at least not on a literal level.
Oh, I suppose it would be nice to find out if, as scientists believe, that Ceres has, much like the Earth, its own atmosphere and its own gravitational pull.
I suppose too it would be interesting to discover the origin of those two glowing haloes of bright white scientists see smack dab in the center of Ceres.
And, finally, I guess it would be pretty cool to get one step closer to answering the two questions that have always fueled the study of the cosmos: where did we come from and where are we going?
But if you’re not interested in such things, with the conclusion of Ceres’ mission, which should come in about four months, the dynamic and often heroic Space Age of the past 55 or so years will unofficially end. And that will be pretty much it.
Oh, NASA will still be around. It’ll still be gobbling up a relatively small fraction of our federal budget (less that ½ of 1%). And the organization will still be making occasional headlines and stealing moments here and there on CNN as it explores rock-star planets like Saturn and Mars.
But NASA will, in large part, only be digging deeper in places it already knows exist. It will be exploring, in other words, the known. Meanwhile, what we will be losing is what has always defined the Space Age; the dogged pursuit of the unknown.
As more and more of us become concerned only with what we can see, touch and wrap their brains around, and the more so many of us continue to turn our backs on science and the scientific method, the more this country will start abandoning what is, arguably, our single greatest and most defining strength.
Look, I know budgets are tight. I know troubles like ISIS, failing schools, and climate change seem far more pressing and infinitely more urgent. But by slowly sun-setting man’s exploration of space, and by continually chipping away at NASA’s budget, ignoring its accomplishments and, in some cases, demonizing the science that fuels it, we’re setting ourselves up for paying a steeper and far dearer price.
That’s why I am writing this today. Because as a child of Tom Swift books, Lost in Space, Star Wars and Apollo missions, and a kid who cut his teeth on science fiction, and one who shared a generational fascination with that which always seemed to lie just beyond our grasp, I can’t help but feel we’re losing something by accepting what we know and, somehow, being OK with that.
I can’t help but feel that as a country that has always stood in pursuit of discovering the next great thing, if we stop funding, supporting and reporting on space exploration, we’ll be losing something fundamental to who we’ve always been and what we’ve always strove to do.
America will stop being – in both a literal and figurative sense – a people, an economy, a nation that dares to defy accepted thinking and, more importantly, dares to reach for the stars.