Initially published in the Raleigh News & Observer November 23, 2016.


Two thousand years ago, effusive in his wonder and reverence, the Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy wrote in the “Almagest”:

“When I trace, at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heaven bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet. I stand in awe of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”

There are those of us yet extant who upon hearing the lilting loveliness of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz cannot help but recall the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

To this day, the movie totally holds up. It is best in its genre; especially considering it debuted before the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon; and before computers, digitalized special effects and computer-generated imagery.

The overarching theme of “2001: A Space Odyssey” is evolution. Its vast scope spans humankind’s ape-like ancestors in the Paleolithic era, to landing on the moon and a voyage to Jupiter. The opening fanfare of Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” establishes the movie’s gravitas and intelligence.

The movie explores such concepts as the self-aware artificial intelligence of the 9000 series computer named HAL, the realistic portrayal of microgravity and the technological solution of gravity simulation by centrifugal force, generated by the rotating circular space station.

The movie also considers non-anthropomorphic understandings of God. However, it is not only reverence, awe, and the “O Magnum Mysterium”of searching for God that compels humankind to reach for the heavens – as some of us are more likely to go searching for God by looking into the Hubble telescope, than by looking into a burning bush.

Moreover, it is humankind’s nature to explore, as did our ancestors who migrated out of Africa, as did Odysseus depicted in Homer’s Odyssey and as Columbus who set out for the New World.

The movie “2001” suggests that space exploration is in fact a step in humanity’s evolution. Our seemingly inherent nature to explore new worlds has preserved our species. I hope that we do not de-evolve from our curiosity and courage to explore.

It was Cold War politics that motivated the Apollo 11 moon landing – a challenge by JFK with the assurance of nearly unlimited funding to accomplish the mission. I vividly recall the beep-beep-beeping of the Russians’ 1957 satellite Sputnik. I could easily read the terror and paranoia in the faces of the adults, spooked by Russia’s technological advances and feared military dominance.

However today we have no such political, national esprit de corps or competitive motivation. Moreover, NASA cannot get any purchase on a plan to travel to the planet Mars. One would have to hitch a ride with the Russians to get to the International Space Station; and we have not been out of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) since.

The next space traveler will likely go to Mars by private enterprise, not NASA. They will not just land on Mars, plant a flag, take a selfie for Facebook, then turn right around, get in the MAV and leave. Like the colonists at Jamestown, they will be settlers of a harsh and hostile new world without the expectation of returning to Earth.

You say we have poverty and other pressing social problems on Earth – so why “waste” money on space travel? Well, let’s ask the Indians that question – in 2014 they successfully put up a Mars orbiter on the first attempt, at less than 10 percent of the cost of NASA’s Mars satellite Maven, launched at about the same time. Additionally at $74 million, the Indian’s Mars satellite “MOM” was less than 1 percent (0.038 percent) of India’s GDP and cost less than the $100 million movie “Gravity.”

Reasons for space exploration include: like an individual, a civilization without challenges and new frontiers will stagnate and decline. We can stay on our lazy butts in front of our screens; or we can engage in international collaboration benefiting from diversity of intelligence and cost-sharing of space exploration projects, for the advancement and preservation of mankind.

Space exploration brings new jobs, increased intellectual capital and new technology; in medicine alone includes MRIs, VADs (ventricular assist device) and artificial limbs to name a few.

Manned and robotic exploration of Mars “is where the science is” and will help us understand “the big questions.” As water has been discovered on Mars; and life tends to show up wherever there’s water – we should “follow the water.” Mars can be terraformed; and we know that essential resources for life support compounds such as O2, N2 and H2O are there.

Though likely far in the future, Earth has an expiration date – by another meteor strike, nuclear war, depletion of natural resources, overpopulation or other causes. Some of us believe that mankind has a much greater destiny than to sit back and join the dinosaurs in extinction.

Like an individual, a civilization without challenges and new frontiers will stagnate and decline.