Without Vision, People Perish : Mankind’s manifest destiny in space


Crackling by radio across a quarter of a million miles of space came the electrifying message: “The Eagle has landed.” With that, two Americans stepped out onto the crusty arid surface of the moon, bringing an exhilarating climax to a quest that was as much an adventure of the human spirit as a technological feat. The Apollo 11 mission seemed like the discovery of another New World, a world of exploration of outer space and inner planets.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of that warm summer day on Earth when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin pranced through frigid lunar dust. But for those who expected a dawning of a new space age, there is little to celebrate. The original heady talk of bases on the moon, huge manned space stations orbiting earth with 100 inhabitants and human exploration of Mars has proved nothing more than talk. No human has visited the moon since 1972.

Ironies abound. Twenty-five years after men strode on the moon, Daniel S. Goldin, administrator of NASA, recently told Congress: “The Congress of the United States and the President have to decide whether we want a space program.” NASA’s budget is shrinking and space-science projects are struggling to survive with scaled-back cheap missions.


The deepest irony of all is that NASA is collaborating with scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union--whose Cold War threat was the motivation for the moon landing--in new projects to monitor Earth’s vital signs, to plan for joint Martian exploration and to loft an international manned space station that is intended to serve as a forward window into outer space to test future space-faring possibilities.

Partly this has to do with keeping the Russian experts out of mischief, partly with keeping American space workers employed. The potential scientific rewards are uncertain. But we must look beyond this horizon. It took a century after Columbus landed for Europeans to start large-scale colonization of the Americas. We are in a pause, distracted by earthly problems that are all too apparent here in Southern California.

Yet we are inherently adventuresome and curious creatures, fascinated with the awesome powers and mystery of the universe. Witness the public interest this week in the spectacular explosions on the planet Jupiter caused by collisions with a comet.

Perhaps the ultimate mystery of all is the possibility that we are not alone in this universe, that life exists in other solar systems. That possibility is both exciting and frightening. A fundamental biological reality is that life spreads as far as it can. That is perhaps our manifest destiny in space. And it is what keeps us looking skyward.