Planetary Sciences

Spaceflight, still in its infancy, promises Mankind the ability to one day travel to the stars and colonize other planets. While we are far from achieving this lofty goal, the pace of space exploration is accelerating. With the formation of The Spaceship Company by Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan and subsequent construction of SpaceShipTwo, private sector commercial suborbital flight will commence. The dream so many of us had as children of traveling into space will become reality for a far greater number than our select few heroic astronauts and cosmonauts.

The long-anticipated manned exploration of Mars is actively being pursued. With visionary groups of citizens and scientists like The Mars Society and President Bush’s new space initiative for NASA driving the effort, it appears the goal is coming within reach, although technologies are yet to be developed that will make it truly feasible. While some may argue that the cost of space exploration is too dear, what price do you place upon a dream? The cost of human exploration has always been high, both in lives and in resources. Columbus nearly failed to discover the New World for lack of funding, yet the avenues opened to Europeans once its existence was known were immense.

Columbus in his quest sought riches in the form of spices, gold and precious gems. Physical riches may indeed abound in space; mining of asteroids is being contemplated by NASA scientists. As the commercial sector becomes actively engaged in space exploration, this too will become a reality, perhaps relieving our planet of the environmental burden some forms of mining cause it to endure. In an age of increasing population, dwindling resources and potential environmental changes that may threaten the stability of our climate, the imperative to push into space is paramount to our survival as a species.

The quest for space we have embarked upon offers a goal capable of moving us far beyond that of mere acquisition of resources. The two attributes humans possess which set us apart from all other animals on Planet Earth are our insatiable thirst for knowledge and our ability to imagine greater things. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has always resulted in advances in technology which ultimately advance the human condition, although admittedly a few steps back may sometimes be taken in the process.

A handful of earthbound and space telescopes and robotic probes sent to distant planets has yielded within the last decade a greater wealth of information about our solar system and the cosmos than had been acquired throughout the entire history of Mankind. Our scope of discovery and understanding has progressed from the range of our unaided eye inward from microscopic worlds to the quantum level of matter and outward first to the horizons of our planet and now near the edges of the universe and the depths of time itself. Within these great expanses lie a plethora of secrets remaining to be revealed. Exploration of space is the key that will unlock the myriad of unanswered questions confronting Mankind and assure our continuing evolution.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 27 August 2005.

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