The following essay was the first place winner of this year's Essay Competition, written by Evan Pray and answering the question "Should the United States resume manned space exploration?"
On a moist July morning in 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final descent towards the runway; never again would it fly into the vast reaches of space under its own power, as its service had been retired along with the shuttle’s fellow orbiters before it. The moment that the gear screeched against the landing strip was the moment which signaled the end to the ambitious hopes of astronauts from an earlier era, those same pioneers who dreamed of soaring through the cosmos on winged spaceships from the likes of fantastic science fiction creations. However, the original aspirations of the shuttle program were too great to have ended in such a way, and to this day its essence remains relatively unseen. The purpose of the shuttle program and a large portion of its missions were to continue developing the technologies needed to reach into something even greater; after all, the shuttle could only achieve low earth orbit, which is useful if you want to rendezvous with a space station, but useless if you want to go to the Moon.
We need to remember when our intentions were set forth, and to do that we need to travel back to one of the greatest and most memorable speeches in American history, which was given by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 when he addressed Congress about the future goals for the country’s young space program. Of course, most people remember the famous segment in which President Kennedy announced a plan to shoot for the Moon by the end of the decade, but what’s often overlooked are the other details in his address, particularly the moments when he called for the development of nuclear rocket propulsion, which would’ve not only carried us to the Moon, but far beyond into the distant reaches of our solar system. We now have the technology to develop these propulsion systems far better than we did back then, but much of it still remains untouched; so why have we stopped? Why have we given up the fundamentally American urge to explore and to journey into the great and dangerous faraway? And why do we now have essentially less capability to reach space than we did forty years ago while other countries continue to increase their capabilities? Should we even pursue manned space exploration?
Many might lead themselves to believe that the idea for this kind of far-reaching exploration grew out of the tense period of the Space Age, and that it was mostly just a meaningless distraction in an attempt to one-up the Soviet Union, but this is only ostensibly true, as its actual roots in American history lie much deeper than the Cold War years, spanning as far back as 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to journey to the northwestern expanse. That long and treacherous expedition was not merely one of exploration and knowledge, but it was one which carried with it the definite purpose of paving the way for American settlement which was soon to follow. President Jefferson not only understood the deeply held American desire to explore and conquer the unknown, he embraced it and made it an integral part of his goals to advance knowledge of the realms which had yet to be fully traversed. In a deep sense, it was the same desire that another American president would issue over a century and a half later. Neither had to learn this desire; it was innate in their natural tendencies and pursuits, a distinctly American value for them to chase. Today, however, our government no longer understands this fundamental aspect, and has significantly reduced the manned exploration capabilities of NASA as a sign of its indifference towards it. The only way to currently reach the International Space Station is through the Russian Federation’s Soyuz rocket, which means that if the United States or Europe or Japan wishes to send one of its astronauts into orbit, they have to hitch a ride on an old Soviet design.
But don’t take these facts too heavily and convince yourself that this means the end to all of our hopes for manned space exploration; because although we can no longer depend on the government administrations to reach for the future of manned explorations, private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites are the ones which will carry us to places like Mars. SpaceX has made significant degrees of progress in its relatively short lifetime; already they have flown two resupply missions to the International Space Station (with more on the way), and have launched multiple satellites into geostationary orbits for private communications enterprises around the world. Companies like SpaceX have a very ambitious goal-oriented mission, much unlike the bureaucratic muck which has infiltrated NASA; instead of cutting budgets and slowing down production, SpaceX maintains the potential for large amounts of growth, and since SpaceX doesn’t feed off a seemingly endless stream of taxpayer dollars like it’s government based counterparts, it needs to advance and grow in order to survive. Private ventures like these should be directly encouraged and rewarded, not simply because of their immediate benefits, but also because they help pave the way for a better future a long way down the road; after all, that idea is the premise behind the foundation of our space program. Unsurprisingly, the very nature of attaining such a reward comes not from the space age, but from a time many years before, in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh won the 25,000 dollar prize for being the first to fly across the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh was much like the John Glenn of his time, a pioneer who was not only the first to make such a daring endeavor, but was the first of many. A modern comparison to the prize awarded to Lindbergh after his accomplishment was the Ansari X Prize, which was a very similarly designed competition to help jumpstart the immediate development of reusable manned spacecraft. Both of these trials had something very important behind their motivation, and that was to be the first to build something that no one had ever constructed in order to travel in a way that no one before had ever undertook. The reason for continuing space exploration is simply that it is the next step of expansion in the long story of civilization, much like the journeys to the New World and the conquests of the western territories which preceded it.
So to culminate the different factors of why we should make efforts to pursue manned space exploration, we should really understand how few differences it holds compared to the great trailblazers of our past. We need to take a hard look at the team of men commissioned by President Jefferson; those people who struggled through situations which are unimaginable to most of us who live in our comfortable and comparatively safe conditions. Furthermore, we need to examine the attitude of the man who flew across the Atlantic, often struggling to keep himself awake in order to keep him and the Spirit of St. Louis from crashing into the waves below. Moreover, we should remember the ones who first came to America, not on the pretense of immediate gain, but in search of a better future; without them, our country and those who came along with it would never have had the opportunity to plot a course for California or the Sea of Tranquility. Only then can we understand the true benefits of escaping the third rock from the sun. If we discontinue manned space exploration, we’ll be looking these people in the eyes and telling them that we ended the journey that they started, a journey that began with the founding of the colonies, and ended with the fateful landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis on that moist July morning. Of course, I don’t believe that the government dictates when this journey is finished; it’s up to us to continue this mission that never ends, because it is our necessary duty, best expressed in the immortal words of President Kennedy when he announced the decision to go to the Moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
By Evan Pray
The views expressed in this essay are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Generation Joshua.