By Chris Jennewein
The Orion spacecraft’s maiden flight on Friday was an obvious technical success, but it’s also a first step to something far more important.
Spaceflight is often defended in practical terms. It’s an important national industry. America needs to command the high ground of space against potential enemies. It has produced useful technologies for earthbound consumers.
All of these are true, but not very convincing.
Space, and Orion’s small journey into it, are important for three reasons: human curiosity, human inspiration and human destiny.
• It’s about curiosity because exploration and inquiry are central to civilization. “The day we stop exploring is the day we commit ourselves to live in a stagnant world, devoid of curiosity, empty of dreams,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-known cosmologist and PBS host.
• It’s about inspiration because space is so much bigger than us. A spacecraft headed beyond Earth is perhaps the 21st century equivalent of a soaring cathedral in the Middle Ages. We may be a young species on a nondescript planet in a nameless galaxy, but we’re here.
• And it’s about destiny because humans must someday move beyond Earth. Our blue planet is a wonderful home, but the universe is not a safe neighborhood. One errant asteroid or one nearby supernova could quickly end life on Earth. As astrophysicist Stephen Hawking put it, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”
Orion represents all these things because it’s designed to go beyond Earth orbit to the moon, an asteroid and eventually Mars. It represents a major step forward after the Space Shutttle which, for all of its technical wizardry, kept astronauts literally moving in circles just 200 miles up.
As successful as Friday’s flight was, it will still be years before humans ride Orion beyond Earth into deep space. Stop-and-go funding and partisan politics have not been good to NASA. But Orion is the first step in the right direction.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times and San Diego and and an avid follower of the space program.
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