The question of “is there life out there” has been around NASA since its inception in 1958 (Dick 1). Popular culture was in those days extremely fascinated by the idea of life on other planets, especially Mars, which as far as we know today is actually lifeless (2). Scientists call this field of searching for extraterrestrial life, exobiology. This study has been a major motivation in space exploration, and alone it has cost billions of dollars (3). Even though we have not yet found new life, it is a science that is not going away, because the Universe is just too big for us to be alone in it. It’s hard not to give attempting to answer the greatest ever question a blank check. On a more practical note, let us talk about what we do know, how we got into space, and a brief overview of what we’ve already done there. Naturally, what we already know about space is so exhaustive that it cannot be boiled down into a few pages, so we will hit a few high points.
The Realities of Space Travel
Real space journeys are obviously very difficult endeavors. Most journeys we do not take ourselves, but through mechanized, automated probes. Those that are manned are undertaken by highly-trained astronauts, for the most part. There have been numerous passengers taken aboard space shuttles, not to mention a number of millionaires taken into space by private ventures. But we’ve never been back to the Moon, and we have never sent a manned mission past the moon, either. We have never attempted a manned journey to Mars, and probably will not in the foreseeable future. Perhaps it just seems unrealistic, especially with the finances involved. But when people reach for a goal that seems to be realistically impossible, oftentimes even if the goal is not achieved right away, in the meantime people learn a lot through their successes and failures in the attempt to reach that goal. Why have we not tried again?
The first real foray into outer space began with the space race between America and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were the first to spring into action. On October 4, 1957, Russia launched the famous Sputnik 1 satellite into orbit, the world’s first artificial satellite. On November 2 of that same year, the Soviets launched Laika the dog into orbit on Sputnik 2. Sadly, the dog did not survive, but it then became clear that it was possible to put a living being in space (“Space Firsts” 1). The United States soon responded on January 31, 1958 with the first American artificial satellite, Explorer.
The following year, the Russians launched a series of three probes. Lunar 1 became the first space vehicle to reach escape velocity, that is to escape orbit of the earth. Passing by the moon on January 4, 1959 in effect became the first artificial “planet” around the sun. On September 12, 1959, the Lunar 2 probe hit the moon, becoming the first probe to hit a celestial body. Lunar 3 was the first to reach orbit of the Moon, and it successfully photographed it for the first time up close (2). And one last time, the Russians would make another first, because in 1961 they were the first to send a man into orbit and return him safely to the earth (3). These events would cause America to step up its own efforts, and lead to the famous speech by President Kennedy.
Putting a Man on the Moon
On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave the speech that included the commitment that the U.S. put a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth before the decade was out (“NASA’s” 1). In 1962, after two successful sub-orbital flights by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, Friendship 7 launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit (“Space Firsts” 3). He was the first American ever to orbit the Earth and he returned safely. After this was complete, the Apollo missions could begin. NASA’s Apollo program had these stated goals: “to establish the technology to meet other national interests in space; to achieve dominance in space for the United States; to develop man's ability to work in a weightless and lunar environment; [and] to have an American walk on the moon first.” It would inevitably meet all of those goals.
After the successful landing of Apollo 11 in July of 1969, NASA never again received quite the incredible political support that it had during the Apollo Project. The space race was over. However, the Apollo project continued, in fact, up until Apollo 17. The most memorable Apollo mission after 11, of course, was Apollo 13, which was scheduled to land on the moon but had to turn back after major electrical failure. That mission was eventually made into the dramatized feature film starring Tom Hanks, Apollo 13. After a couple more moon landings, it was finally decided that the moon had been sufficiently conquered, as popular interest fell and congressional funding faltered. But NASA was already well on its way in working on its next projects.
After the end of the Apollo Project, the Pioneer satellites were constructed. Dr. Thomas A. Mutch, who was Associate Administrator for Space Science at NASA Headquarters in the 1980’s compared the space exploration of the latter twentieth century to the 15th and 16th century explorations of Earth’s oceans (Fimmel vi). “With Pioneer,” Mutch said, “we felt our way out through the asteroid belt and struck out into the uncharted oceans of the outer Solar System” (vii). To Mutch, the Pioneer satellites were much like the first sea expeditions; it was like outer space was just a new sea to be sailed. The Pioneer spacecraft were just the first step in a series of deep space probes, with the Viking and Voyager probes to follow.
Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972, sent to explore the Jovian planets of Jupiter and Saturn (“Pioneer” 1). They continued to transmit data for three decades, the last data being received from Pioneer 10 in 2003 (1). The Viking probes were next, both launched to land on Mars to search for the possibility of life. Both landed in 1976, and nothing living was found (“Space Firsts” 3). Next were the Voyager probes. Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977 and Voyager 2 was launched on August 20, 1977, both headed for Jupiter but on somewhat different flight paths. Voyager 1 only passed Jupiter and Saturn before heading out into interstellar space, whereas Voyager 2 passed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune before heading out into deep space. Voyager 2 was the first probe to see those last two planets, Uranus and Neptune, up close. It also discovered some interesting things on Neptune’s moons, especially that of activity on its moon Triton that did not seem possible at such low temperatures. There have been many other probes sent as well since then.
As the Apollo program was winding down, NASA was already working on its “Next Big Thing” as editor Tony Reichhardt called it in the introduction to his book, Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years (11). That was building the first reusable spacecraft. Starting construction in the late 1970’s, the first of the shuttles, the Columbia, was launched in 1981 (“Space Firsts” 2). It was the first reusable manned space craft ever created. The space shuttles became the workhorses of NASA. However, they have also had the most disasters. Little needs to be said of what happened to the Challenger in 1986. Of course, the most recent disaster was the explosion of that very same Columbia upon re-entry, a major set-back in the space program. The Atlantis, the fourth of the Space Shuttles, was the only shuttle in active service until 2011 when it and all the the remaining shuttles were retired. NASA counted on Atlantis to continue the International Space Station project among other tasks in orbit (“Space Shuttle Overview” 1).
The space shuttle has been a bit of a controversy, especially in its operating costs. “If the shuttle has been a financial disappointment in its first 20 years,” Reichhardt wrote in 2002, “What exactly has it accomplished, other than to keep flying for a very long time? What it has done, just as promised, is to make spaceflight routine” (14). It is the moments that are not routine like the Challenger disaster, and much more recently the Columbia explosion in 2005 that we seem to hear about the most. We often heard very little or nothing at all about the missions taken every couple of months that take off and end successfully.
The International Space Station is the major space project currently underway. The project has been in the works since the Reagan administration, and in 1998 the first module was launched into space. On November 2, 2000, the first habitable module, Expedition 1 was docked with the space station (Borsche 1). Ever since then it has been inhabited by Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts alike, conducting numerous scientific experiments. As of September 2006, it has 15,000 cubic feet of habitable space, and has enjoyed the stay of 15 Americans and 14 Russians over its operation thus far (2). Experiments and supplies have been ferried via the Space Shuttles as well as more recently with the Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles (2). It is continuing to grow in size, and is already a fairly good-sized structure, quite operational and those inhabiting it love the experience of working within it (3).
While no manned deep space journeys are currently in the works, they could well be possible someday within our own solar system. The first manned deep space journey most likely would be to Mars. As technology progresses, manned missions may even make it to the outer planets, but they would be long missions, and very expensive! But we can’t know what we may be missing unless we seek it out. Back in the 1970’s, renowned author James Michener had some fine words about the importance of space exploration. He said these words before a Congressional subcommittee on the subject, words that still hold true today:
“I do not for a moment believe that the spiritual well-being of our nation depends primarily upon a successful space program… But I also believe that there are moments in history when challenges occur of such a compelling nature that to miss them is to miss the whole meaning of an epoch. Space is such a challenge.
We risk great peril if we kill off this spirit of adventure, for we cannot predict how and in what seemingly unrelated fields it will manifest itself. A nation which loses its forward thrust in danger, and one of the most effective ways to retain that thrust is to keep exploring possibilities. The sense of exploration is intimately bound up with human resolve, and for a nation to believe that it is still committed to forward motion is to ensure its continuance.
… We should be most careful about retreating from the specific challenge of our age. We should be reluctant to turn our back upon the frontier of this epoch. Space is indifferent to what we do… But we cannot be indifferent to space, because the grand slow march of our intelligence has brought us, in our generation, to a point from which we can explore and understand and utilize it. To turn back now would be to deny our history, our capabilities.” (Fimmel viii)
Michener’s words, plenty as they are, are necessary in illustrating the necessity of having an ongoing space program. It may not be necessary for it to exist for popular reasons, but for purely scientific reasons. It is necessary for space programs to continue, as there are experiments that can only be accomplished there. As Michener said, if we are capable, and it is in the best interests of human progress, then we should most certainly do it.
Will interstellar space travel be possible one day? It certainly could not be broken down into movies or weekly syndicated television series like Star Wars and Star Trek, respectively. But the universe is an infinitely vast place, and we likely cannot even imagine what is out there to discover, even within the confines of our own solar system. So is there life out there? It would certainly not be that of Star Trek or Star Wars. There could never be a universal translator or warp drive quite as we have seen them (Batchelor 6). But there could be a galaxy out there like the one in Star Wars, very, very far away. There most likely is no real Empire or Rebel Alliance out there, but there could very well be a galaxy out there with life, and maybe, even our own galaxy has life like it (Lovgren 1).
Perhaps someday we will be able to replace the fictions of Star Trek and Star Wars with truths so extraordinary that we can’t yet imagine them. We may not know in our lifetimes, but since much of the Universe is beyond even what we can imagine, who knows what is out there to be found.
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Dick, Steven J., and James E. Strick. The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
Fimmel, Richard, James Van Allen, and Eric Burgess. Pioneer: First to Jupiter, Saturn, and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1980.
Lovgren, Stefan. "The "Star Wars" Worlds: More Science Than Fiction." National Geographic News. 3 June 2005. National Geographic. 11 Nov. 2015 <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0603_050603_starwars.html>.
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"Pioneer Space Probes Unexpectedly Slow Down in Deep Space." Technovelgy. 23 Nov. 2004. 11 Nov. 2015 <http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Science-Fiction-News.asp?NewsNum=270>.
Reichhardt, Tony, ed. Space Shuttle: the First 20 Years. London: DK Publishing, 2002.
"Space Firsts." BBC News. 1 Apr. 1998. BBC. 11 Nov. 2015 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1998/03/98/gagarin/71828.stm>.
"Space Shuttle Atlantis." NASA. 5 Jan. 2007. NASA. 11 Nov. 2015 <http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/shuttleoperations/orbiters/orbitersatl.html>.
"Space Shuttle Overview: Atlantis (OV-104)." NASA. 23 Jan. 2007. NASA. 11 Nov. 2015 <http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/shuttleoperations/orbiters/atlantis-info.html>.