If anyone is as optimistic about the new frontier as China, it’s the billionaires. Their ambitions should also spur NASA to stay in the game. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk may or may not be visionaries, but they are easily the most powerful people on this planet to speak bluntly about colonizing others. Mr Musk warns of an “extinction event” that will force us to leave Earth behind. There is a certain egalitarianism in the idea of an escape route for humanity, although it is the egalitarianism of rats leaving a sinking (or overheating) ship. Things would have to go wrong here before ordinary people followed the billionaires into the black vacuum of space rather than bid them farewell. Mr. Musk’s product placement of a Tesla in orbit and Mr. Bezos’ post-flight performance in his cowboy hat leave one suspicious of their motives and nostalgic for Glenn’s military wear. If space travel lost its novelty in the early 1970s, it may be losing its dignity today.
Of course, that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments of Mr. Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX. Rarely in an industry has such audacity of imagination been matched by such brilliance in execution. The company is an indispensable partner of NASA; a SpaceX landing system will ferry astronauts to and from the surface of the moon.
But there is an essential difference between exploration and colonization, and both are far from commercialization. Left to the billionaires, space is less likely to become a haven for humanity than a playground for its wealthiest members. In this event, there will be no more John Glenns – no more astronauts to admire and emulate, astronauts whose humility and awe of the vastness of space define them as much as their bravery.
“Exploration of space will continue whether we participate in it or not,” Kennedy said in 1962 at Rice University, warning that “no nation that expects to be the leader of other nations can s ‘expect to stay behind in this space race’. .” Perhaps this logic has lost its power; maybe Americans don’t care if the billionaires and China have the moon to themselves. The idea of space as a new frontier, too, might be tired, overworked. (During the Super Bowl, a Salesforce ad dismissed it with an “Eh.”) But Perseverance’s exciting discoveries—evidence of ancient Martian river deltas and lava flows—are eloquent testimony to the mysteries that lie ahead. at the border. Robots like these are incredibly capable. Yet they can neither invent nor imagine; they can no more drive the process of discovery in space than they can here on Earth. Only humans can lead, and to lead, humans must go.
Science “is simply the exploration of the unknown,” James Head, a planetary geologist at Brown who helped train the Apollo astronauts, told me, adding, “The moon is unknown. Mars is unknown. is perhaps what NASA should say, and without excuse: we don’t know what we’ll find. We don’t know what the moon and Mars can tell us about the origins of the universe and life on Earth and perhaps beyond. And that is above all the reason to go there. Six days after returning to Earth, Glenn addressed a joint meeting of Congress. “What benefits do we derive from the money spent? he asked, acknowledging that it was too soon to tell. “But the exploration and pursuit of knowledge,” he said, “has always paid off in the long run—usually far more than was originally anticipated.” Why bother? That is why.