Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You think your job is stressful? Be an Astronaut!

Tonight, Space Shuttle Discovery, STS-119, will launch. It will be bringing it's a final set of solar arrays to the International Space station. Read about it on the NASA website.

As the US is winding down our shuttle program, there seems to be a lack of urgency for its replacement. Maybe it is understandable. We are all caught up in our daily crises, economic issues, job losses, wars and all of the day to day issues. We just don't seem to have the time to look up from our day to day issues to see the bigger pictures.

Exploration for the sake of exploration is a concept that many people don't "get". They say, "Why spend all of this time and money exploring, when there is so much to do right here and right now." Talking about forward, long term thinking is hard to prioritize when you are worried about keeping your job, feeding your family, or tending to a sick or dying friend.

Sometimes, we use the arguments, or justifications of space exploration such as "Exploration is part of the Human psyche", or "If Columbus had never explored, we wouldn't be here". I think those arguments fall short. Arguably, humans do have a long history of exploration, but part of our psyche? If you could ask early hominids what made them cross the land bridge to the Americas, you would probably find that it was in search of scarce resources, such as food or better climate. And, you could make a good case that Columbus did not sail to the "New World" because of some noble pursuit of truth or exploration for exploration sake. Gold, wealth, and power had a lot to do with it.

Using these completely altruistic arguments, although I personally like to believe they are true, fall short of presenting a powerful justification for space exploration. Why don't we talk about real, concrete reasons why we should and need to go into space? Why don't we hear more about how going into space, learning how to live and accommodate life in that thin shell that surrounds the earth, is the best way for us to learn how to take care of our planet. It is hard to appreciate the wildernesses of the planet, until you actually get to go out into them. It is equally hard to appreciate our delicate planet until you actually get to step out a little and look back at it.

We aren't even talking about stepping out very far. Most of my relatives live farther away from me than the astronauts are as they pass overhead. We are talking about space craft that orbits closer to us than some people drive in their daily commute. And we send astronauts up so infrequently that it is still a dangerous thing to do. Lets figure this out. Lets make our space program a priority. Lets move, just a little bit, away from the problems we face all day, every day, and look back. We might just find some solutions.

This is what is part of the human psyche: finding solutions. Lets look at the big picture. And, to do that, we need to step back (out) a little bit.

Good luck crew of STS-119. Be safe. Oh, and thanks!

Tim Beauchamp

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