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A staple of Cold War fiction in the 1980s was the idea that the United States and the Soviet Union would take their rivalry, and its accompanying military buildup, into the final frontier of space. As a boy I had illustrated books on future technology that depicted armed satellites blasting away at each other. The technology that would enable peaceful, laser-armed satellites to clear away “space junk” was the same technology that would enable warring space-nations to take shots at each other’s orbiting infrastructure. It all sounded very prophetic, and as a child who loved science fiction and who had a firm belief in the inevitable evolution of daily life into that speculative vision of the near future, I knew it was only a matter of time before such space battles came to pass. Of course, I also had pillowcases with robots on them.
While today I still have to do my own dishes because I don’t yet have a household robot for that, a portion of that childhood science fiction I remember has now become science fact: A pair of satellites have hit each other. Given just how vast is space and even the small portion of it represented by orbit around the Earth, it came as a surprise to those who keep an eye on such things that a pair of satellites would or could coincidentally collide with each other. I don’t see why this is the case, though; the law of averages alone tells us that the more crap we throw in orbit around our planet, the greater are the chances that two or more pieces of space-going debris will attempt to occupy the same place at the same time.
Space.com reports that last week, NASA issued an e-mail alert stating that a defunct, almost 2,000-pound Russian satellite launched in the early 1990s collided with an Iridium communications satellite (which was in service until the collision). The destruction of the two satellites has prompted everything from calls for more “space traffic” regulations to the development of conspiracy theories concerning the crash. Apparently, it can’t be the case that two satellites finally got in each other’s way up there. There are those who firmly believe that the Russians targeted and destroyed the Iridium satellite deliberately, as a way of asserting their power in space. While I’ve no doubt that Putin and today’s Russia would do so if this were within their capabilities, we’re talking about a nation that can’t keep its rusting, rotting Navy afloat; it’s unlikely that they’re busily launching covert satellite-killing space vehicles that are even now lurking about in orbit. Note that I did not say it’s impossible. I simply find it unlikely.
The satellite collision and reaction to it underscore the need for continued exploration of space. “Space exploration” is a vague term, but in this context I mean we should – and perhaps we must – continue to explore that which lies beyond our atmosphere, from orbit around the planet, to the moon, to the planets of our solar system. It’s a fact that the “space program” (another vague term) has positive unintended consequences; the drive to solve issues of technology and logistics in space produces mundane consumer products many of us Terrans find useful. While some of the products currently believed to be produced by NASA research simply were not (Tang, Velcro and Teflon, for example), others, such as memory foam, were indeed developed for the space program.
Ancillary consumer technology does not alone justify the expense and effort of continued exploration of outer space. Given NASA’s penchant for making itself look stupid (the allegedly diaper-wearing, cross-country driving, lovelorn astronaut who tried to kidnap her rival was a terrestrial blot on the organization’s image, but much more significant have been real failures to accomplish stated goals), it would be easy to dismiss the “space program” as something we can do without. Especially given the collapse of the world economy (the drumbeat of financial doom is impossible to escape if you listen to or watch any news outlet of any kind), spending millions or even billions of dollars on visiting our dead moon once more, or even visiting our close neighbor, Mars, seems to many Americans to be almost frivolous. It is, in their minds, an extravagance we cannot afford, whose benefits do not outweigh its costs.
I argue that despite the costs, despite the difficulties and despite the dangers – the loss of the crews of two space shuttles remains among the worst tragedies of our attempts to reach beyond our world – our continued advance into space, into the universe beyond the envelope of our atmosphere, is necessary for a purely emotional reason. A well-funded, persistent, driven space program is part of giving a nation hope, part of demonstrating to Americans that we as a people can reach for the stars and accomplish great things. It is no small task to reach beyond terrestrial limits; it is a monumental undertaking to move a human being from the Earth into the vast, pitiless, harsh environment of space. It is harder still to reach another world in our solar system and return to tell the tale. These acts are significant, are important and give us hope because they are hard. The accomplishment of these difficult goals not only helps focus national attention on what we still can do as an American people; it pushes us to continue learning about the technology we foolishly take for granted.
Maintaining our commitment to the nation’s space program will help us to understand better, and develop technologies to better cope with, problems like the recent satellite collision. (Ask yourself how much of our communications technology relies on satellites; this alone is incredibly important.) That, however, is arguably a short-term goal. In the long term, a commitment to our space program pushes us as a people to continue doing more. Now, more than ever, we need that push. We need that drive.
We need that hope.