Sometimes when mankind appears to be at its worst, it gets a welcome shot of medicine to add perspective and make our human-sized conflicts seem slightly less burdensome.
Such a moment occurred July 20, 1969, 46 years ago Monday, when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. The historic mission capped a decade that saw the nation and world divided by war and social upheaval. But for one day, 500 million earthlings paused from their struggles on a midsummer night to watch two shadowy figures bounce along the lunar surface like 8-year-olds.
Last week, amid another summer of unrest, we got a similar lift when the New Horizons space probe passed within 7,700 miles of the dwarf planet Pluto. It was the first exploration of a remote world previously seen as a tiny speck in a field of stars, even by the most powerful telescope.
The spacecraft began its 3.6 billion-mile voyage in 2006, its golf cart-sized collection of sophisticated instruments the fastest ever launched. It passed the moon in nine hours, a trip the Apollo 11 astronauts needed three days to make.
Photos from Pluto, its moon Charon and other objects in the Kuiper Belt system have been stunning in their detail, offering space scientists a wealth of data to mine where none previously existed. “We’re not rewriting the book (on Pluto),” one mission official stated. “We’re writing it from scratch.”
New Horizon’s images revealed icy mountains, a peach-colored surface and a light-colored birthmark many call Pluto’s “heart” — which, if you look at it right, also looks like the silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s dog and the orb’s namesake.
To those of a generation who grew up in the heyday of space exploration in the 1950s and ’60s, it harkens to the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, the countdown clock on Cape Canaveral and the exciting moment when, amid a floral burst of orange flames, the capcom would proclaim, “Liftoff! We have liftoff!”
Those who grew up citing the mnemonic order of the planets (“My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies”) now see mysterious, oddball Pluto up close as we’d view our own full moon. It’s a “wow” moment hard to top — until the next space probe goes even farther and reveals even more distant wonders.
Those younger who didn’t experience the thrills of the “Tang Dynasty” may shrug at such discovery, and either take such missions for granted or believe them to be a waste of time and money. It’s the same ho-hum attitude seen after the excitement of Apollo 11 gave way to the routine nature of space travel.
That’s a shame, but understandable. For nearly four decades since the last moon landing, space exploration took a back seat to other priorities. Most recent space programs were geared toward launching satellites and other commercial concerns within Earth orbit, not sending manned flights to new worlds.
But space scientists haven’t been completely idle, and continued to send robotic eyes and ears to other planets and asteroids in the galactic neighborhood. Rovers on Mars still are bumping along the red planet’s surface looking for signs of life, or conditions that could create it. NASA has crashed probes into the surface of comets, akin to hitting a speeding bullet with a smaller bullet. It has accomplished this despite reduced staffing and budgets.
And in a time when other nations begin to stretch their legs in space, notably China, the United States is the only country that has visited and photographed all nine original planets of the solar system, demoted dwarf Pluto the last card to fill that trick. Decades after the “space race” with the Soviet Union, Americans can take patriotic pride in that achievement.
In addition, the private sector has begun to develop its own efforts to escape earth’s gravity, motivated more by profit and adventure than discovery, but that’s OK. There’s plenty of space out there, so the more the merrier.
Should we continue to spend vast fortunes exploring space when problems at home remain unsolved? It’s a fair to concede that humans should address issues of poverty, inequality and injustice, and work harder to clean up our own planet even as we venture to new ones.
But that should not derail efforts to reach past our own atmosphere. The quest to learn more about ourselves, our world and those over the horizon is what sets us apart from other beings. Space isn’t the real final frontier, like Spock told us. That would be the human mind, the last mysterious world to be discovered. The search for scientific knowledge is key to that and should always be a priority.
Someday, a new generation of astronauts will set foot on Mars or other worlds. Perhaps we’ll discover life elsewhere, be they microbes or sentient beings. We’ll never know if we don’t continue to explore.
Our world can be a harsh, violent, noisy blue ball spinning out of control, the globe and its problems large to us but small compared to the cosmos. Reaching past the clouds to worlds beyond validates who we are as humans — always questioning, always curious, always seeking answers to the mysteries of our existence.