It all began with dreams. Throughout human history we have been constantly fascinated with our natural universe, leading to a desire to learn more about it. The early spaceflight pioneers relentlessly worked to make a reality their dreams of exploring the solar system. With the realization of spaceflight as something that could actually be accomplished, the United States went from its first orbital flights to the Moon within a decade. It followed with increasingly complex robotic missions to the planets and human operations in Earth orbit using the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. It did not end there, as mighty space telescopes have probed the depths of the universe and brought knowledge about its origins and evolution. The space age has brought us remarkable discoveries about our universe and new perspectives on our home planet, changes in the way in which we live and perceive, and broader visions of our place in the cosmos.
It has also seen the building of great machines totally under human control. The power of a big rocket’s launch is daunting. Impressive over the television, in person it is overwhelming, uniquely magical. Novelist Ray Bradbury once commented: “Too many of us have lost the passion and emotion of the remarkable things we’ve done in space. Let us not tear up the future, but rather again heed the creative metaphors that render space travel a religious experience. When the blast of a rocket launch slams you against the wall and all the rust is shaken off your body, you will hear the great shout of the universe and the joyful crying of people who have been changed by what they’ve seen.” No one leaves a Space Shuttle—or any other launch for that matter—unchanged. The experience is thrilling and transforming.
President John F. Kennedy captured this sense of wonder well in 1962 when he remarked at a speech given at Rice University: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” He commented that “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” Spaceflight, for all of its technical minutiae, is a deeply spiritual experience that reaches into the depths of the human psyche.
From the beginning of the space age a little more than fifty years ago, the most eloquent advocates of space exploration have been a remarkably able set of American astronauts. Starting with the Mercury Seven astronauts, Americans built up these daring individuals as giants who strode the Earth as latter-day saviors whose purity coupled with noble deeds would purge this land of all evils. In large measure, they did not disappoint.
By the time of the unveiling of the Mercury Seven in April 1959, Americans had cast the astronauts as noble champions who would carry the nation’s manifest destiny beyond its shores and into space. James Reston of the New York Times, remarked that he felt profoundly moved by the statements of the astronauts. “What made them so exciting,” he wrote, “was not that they said anything new but that they said all the old things with such fierce convictions…They spoke of ‘duty’ and ‘faith’ and ‘country’ like Walt Whitman’s pioneers…This is a pretty cynical town, but nobody went away from these young men scoffing at their courage and idealism.”
Over the years, no one has been more eloquent on behalf of space exploration than John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and after a long career in the Senate he made a second flight on the Space Shuttle in 1998. In 1986 he summoned images of the American heritage of pioneering when he commented that “Space represents the modern frontier for extending humanity’s research into the unknown. Our commitment to manned programs must remain strong even in the face of adversity and tragedy. This is our history and the legacy of all who fly.”
Legendary journalist Walter Cronkite captured this thrill of spaceflight in a remarkable reflection written at the turn of the twenty-first century. “Yes, indeed, we are the lucky generation,” He wrote. In this era we “first broke our earthly bonds and ventured into space. From our descendants’ perches on other planets or distant space cities, they will look back at our achievement with wonder at our courage and audacity and with appreciation at our accomplishments, which assured the future in which they live.”
The first fifty years of space exploration were motivated by fantastic images, and the thrill of this exploration fostered continued attention. Properly conducted, space exploration can provide a hopeful future. It can provide an important part of the means by which humans learn to live on a small and precious world and to leave it for another.