America Needs Another Bold Kennedyesque Space Project
Article, Investor's Business Daily, October 15, 2012
by Rosario A. Iaconis
The Space Shuttle Endeavour thrilled young and old, in person and on TV, as it made its final journey over the weekend from LAX through Los Angeles neighborhoods to a downtown science center. But there was also a tinge of sadness to the big event.
For it was a reminder than America is no longer reaching for the stars. Whatever happened to the final frontier anyway?
With his bold vision of a manned lunar landing, President John F. Kennedy made space exploration the sine qua non of American exceptionalism. "We choose to go to the moon," he thundered in a speech at Rice University some 50 years ago, "because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
You don't have to be James Tiberius Kirk to see the benefits of such an enterprise.
As a direct consequence of JFK's celestial cri de coeur, the U.S. became the global leader in R&D, engineering, scientific knowledge and technological innovation. And whatever one's ideology, the case for space ought to be an American imperative in the 21st century.
A full-throttle exploration of the solar system and beyond could revivify our economic fortunes, unleash animal spirits in both the public and private sectors, uncover extraterrestrial life and in the long run better the lot of humanity. Yet neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has embraced the promise of the final frontier.
Though he envisions a manned U.S. landing on the Red Planet by the 2030s, and a similar stop-over to a near-Earth asteroid, President Obama abruptly cancelled the Constellation project, a mission designed to make a return trip to the moon followed by a flight to Mars.
Gov. Romney mocked Newt Gingrich's proposed lunar program in a GOP presidential debate. Mitt maintained that if someone told him "they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say 'You're fired!'" Such thinking dishonors the memory of Neil Armstrong. Thankfully, more imaginative minds are proposing bold space-based initiatives.
Given the Moon's abundant mineral resources and potential for generating solar-electric power, astronomer Timothy Ferris believes establishing a lunar base would be a steppingstone to the stars and a cost-efficient way to provide clean energy on terra firma.
Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging mission to Saturn, believes that in the Saturnian satellite Enceladus "we face the thrilling possibility that within this little moon is an environment where life, or at least its precursor steps, may be stirring: liquid water, the requisite chemical elements and excess energy."
Dr. Porco holds that a specially equipped spacecraft could "detect the rumblings of underground liquid" on this moon—and also permit the exploration of Titan, "another Saturnian destination offering a possible look at life's chemical beginnings."
But it's the Curiosity rover — the high-tech dune buggy now looking for life on Mars — that could spark a space-faring renaissance.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, says that as a fraction of one of our tax dollars, "the total cost of all U.S. spaceborne telescopes and planetary probes, the rover on Mars, the International Space Station, the terminated space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly" may surprise: "one-half of one penny."
What's missing is a Kennedyesque resolve to chart a grand cosmic goal by a date certain. Centuries ago, Marcus Aurelius measured human existence against the vastness of the universe: "The entire Earth is but a point, and the place of our own habitation but a minute corner of it."
Venturing into the wine-dark sea of space may be encoded in our DNA. The carbon, oxygen and nitrogen necessary for life came from the stars. We are, then, children of the stars. And to the stars we must boldly return, American-style: Per ardua ad astra.
Rosario A. Iaconis is chairman of the Italic Institute of America and adjunct professor of economics, critical thinking and communication at Briarcliffe College in New York.