It's been two months since I wrote, and we've had an armed conflict (not a war, only Congress can declare that, regardless of what the current executive branch and the media say), a tax cut, a change in seasons, a new wife for Guiliani, and a space shuttle destroyed on reentry into the earth's atmosphere. I've spoken about the war, I won't see much of a tax cut, the change in season is better discussed by better poets than myself, and and I am not a huge fan of Guiliani and his personal or professional shenanigans, despite the fact he was a steady guy at the right time on 11 September. So, the shuttle.

I remember the first shuttle lost, the Challenger. I was coming home from a class in college, and I thought my hall mate was bs-ing me. But he took off too quick to see my reaction, so I followed him to the TV room. I watched, again and again, the flash of flame, the explosion, the plumes of smoke and debris that have become an image as sharp as the fall of the Hindenburg in an earlier era.

Yet the Challenger's destruction did not end the shuttle program as the loss of the Hindenburg ended the great airship liners. The Hindenburg had competitors. As successful as it is, Soyuz isn't really a direct challenge to the shuttle fleet I think, so we sent another shuttle up 2 years later, in 1988, and again and again, putting up telescopes, satellites, experiments, a space station, and an international smorgasbord of astronauts until April of this year.

With the success of recent Mars missions, and memory or other loss of life, the call went out to forego human exploration of space. Robots are cheaper, faster, and safer, folks mentioned. We have other uses for the money, for the energy involved in shooting humans off in space. I even had a serious discussion with a friend about this, and the vigor of my response, as muddled as it was, surprised me.

Yes, as you can guess, I like the shuttle program, or at least the fact that it is part of the effort to put a permanent human presence in orbit. But my response to my friend touched on something deeper, more human than just supporting a policy out of personal interest based on an early diet of space opera fiction and UFO documentaries. I was incensed at the thought we would abandon space, that the money would be better spent other ways, or that we just don't need to risk humans to do the work of robots.

The argument that the money could be better used elsewhere is an important one. There are social, economic, and environmental ills all over the world. The millions spent on space exploration might indeed help alleviate some of those problems. But it will not eliminate them. There is no guarantee that the governments of the world would even use the saved money toward those ends. We will always have inequality, poverty, and real estate developers. We will not solve those problems with more money.

Space exploration is many things to many people. I can only speak of what it is to me. It is, to me, an expression of one of the deepest parts of the human soul. Exploring is what we are made to do. We are designed for walkabouts, to make tools, to go over the next ridge and do something there. Sometimes we don't know what 'til we arrive, but we figure it out. We walked out of Africa. we walked or rode or floated over every part of the globe we could reach. Then we made more tools and started going places earlier humans never imagined. Up, down, and across every nook and cranny possible.

We continue to risk taking new paths, to see what happens if we cross some boundary. We take chances that this thing will make us more money, or be better in some way than something else, or if it will be just different. Sometimes we lose. $1 billion was risked and lost on e-books alone 3 years ago, and we understand such things happen in the pursuit of new markets. Over 40,000 people died in car accidents last year, yet we still drive vehicles that could be safer because it is faster and easier and more comfortable than walking or carriages. Such risks, large or small, are undertaken every day with no greater risk of loss than space exploration, yet they are so mundane we do not think of them that way.

We risk entering space in hopes of achieving a reward greater than any other we pursue: the survival of our humanness. Space will be our next walkabout. It gives us an opportunity to continue to be human unlike any other risk besides love. It gives us opportunities to not only remake ourselves, but also to remain ourselves if we do not agree with some of the changes surrounding us. Like any frontier, it can be the haven for dreamers, for the different, for kooks, for the hopeful and hopeless alike. It can teach us about ourselves, and give us insight into we can be.

It is not that such amounts of money and any number of lives mean little. I do not mean to imply that. It is perspective and hope and opportunity in risk that concerns me. If we are going to take risks daily with money and life, then let it sometimes be for something greater than our earthbound selves, something that gives a universe to human hope. Such places are becoming more and more rare here on Earth.


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