When “Star Trek” showed Capt. James T. Kirk writing on a handheld, touch-sensitive
in 1967, most computer scientists, not to mention most viewers, thought it was absurd — a fun flight of fancy, yes, but certainly not something that could happen in the real world. The very notion was ridiculous! Yet here I am, typing away on a touch-screen computer that I carry with me everywhere, invigorated with the newly discovered knowledge that “Star Trek” may have been right about something else: life on other planets.
For those who are late to the story, don't worry, we haven't made first contact with an alien civilization yet. If that had happened, I'm sure someone would have texted you. But a new study published Monday in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reports that there are likely billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, planets that have suns like our sun and that are about the right distance from those suns to maintain habitable temperatures.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this news. As tantalizing as these faraway places may be to the imagination, their discovery underlines just how little the United States government is doing at present to actually get there. As exciting as it was to watch
The government’s departure from the space business has been a rare bit of bipartisanship. Despite
Indeed, despite the resurgence of the science-based space genre with movies like “Gravity” and an upcoming reality TV show that will launch celebrities into space (but, alas, not keep them there), the real-life American institutions that created those programs’ foundational iconography is in shambles. Enjoyable though it was to see the space shuttle Endeavour being taken through the streets of Los Angeles on its way to the
As things stand, the only way you might be able to get to space from America in the near future is to become extremely wealthy and pay
Admittedly, Musk does have a heart for exploration and has generously offered to start funding exploratory trips to Mars and local asteroids. That is very nice of him, but relying on the benevolence of billionaires is not a reliable means of exploring our universe. As attractive as it may seem to just privatize everything, going to the stars seems like a pretty reasonable example of what society should consider a group effort.
There has been and will continue to be much memorializing of
The discovery of multitudes of Earth-like planets that we can practically see but not touch should be our generation's Sputnik moment. We should let it inspire us to dedicate our greatest minds to the exploration of our universe, and in so doing change our world for the better. The private sector is doing its part in this journey, but private space travel for the elite can be only half the story; the other half is public funding with public support to explore our universe and, in so doing, make previously unthinkable advances like touch-screen computers that communicate with satellites so commonplace that our descendants find our amazement hilarious. That is how we do right by the legacy of John Kennedy — and maybe even Capt. Kirk.