Pioneering the Space Frontier

By White, Stephen W. | National Forum, Summer 1992 | Go to article overview

Pioneering the Space Frontier


White, Stephen W., National Forum


With so many frontiers to explore in today's world, in genetics, in neurobiology, in medicine, in early childhood development, in race relations, in immunology, in computer science (is the list finite?), why should we select the space frontier as a topic for National Forum? First, there are historical reasons for the selection. It is the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. The year 1992 is, therefore, a good year to reflect on the questions raised by and the meaning of the Columbus quest. The year 1992 is also, the National Commission on Space reminds us, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union and the 35th anniversaries of the International Geophysical Year and the launching of Sputnik. Moreover, in 1985 in a bill authorizing NASA funding, Congress declared 1992 as International Space Year.

A second reason for focussing on the space frontier is that the big question Americans have not yet really grappled with is, Granted that there has been a lot of activity in space, should we become a "spacefaring" people? And if so, Why?

Thirdly, there are advocates for establishing settlements in space. Tom Wolfe put the case for space exploration bluntly in the National Space Commission's report: "The purpose of the space program should be pointed and single-minded: namely, the exploration, by men and women, of the rest of the Universe--and the establishment of extraterrestrial colonies." James Michener, in this same report stated, "I cannot visualize mankind stopping at our present thresholds, either physically or mentally, and I am convinced that if we Americans do not do the exploring . . . someone else will . . . . we have a national obligation to help or even lead."

If this rhetoric does not stir something deep within each of us, then we must read Pioneering the Space Frontier. For this report will help one appreciate the fact that NASA's and hence American space efforts are anything but one-dimensional. For the pragmatist, NASA has a publication entitled Spinoff (See James Van Allen's comments on the use of this term). It is chock-full of justifications for the space effort, for NASA-initiated projects are not just expanding basic scientific knowledge in astronomy, physics, medicine, etc. Such projects are contributing to supersonic and hypersonic technology development (air vehicles travelling at supersonic and hypersonic speeds), STOVL research (Short TakeOff and Vertical Landing Aircraft like the Navy/Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier), the development of such practical things as aircraft-icing sensors, solid state lasers, gas sensors, signal processors, optical instruments, heart rate monitors, liquid crystals, virtual reality computer technology, etc.

Fifth, the successful exploitation of space has inspired a collective focussing of intellectual effort and resources unparalleled in any technological endeavor. For a few brief years, the space effort molded this nation's people into a competitive team, and the results were inspirational.

It has been 23 years since Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins travelled to the moon--July 20, 1969. July 20, 1969! Which American can ever forget that date? In fact, the National Commission on Space has proposed that July 20 be declared National Space Day, "without establishing it as a legal holiday." Who could possibly be opposed?

Sixth, one cannot doubt the intellectual, indeed even theological, significance of the space quest. The Great Observatories program alone is sufficient to justify considerable interest and investment in space. This includes the Hubble Space Telescope which when fully operational will allow us to "look back in time some 14 billion years to the early days of the universe." Astronomers have already drawn conclusions about the origins of the universe from Hubble's presence in space.

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