Fifty years ago, Americans looked into deep space and saw it as place worth planting a flag. The space race galvanized the country, igniting a nationalistic fervor to beat the Russians to the moon that captured the imaginations of adults and children alike.
But that all seems so retrograde now. Buffeted by rising costs and waning public interest, we humans largely have left the stars to satellites, robots and Hollywood scriptwriters.
There hasn’t been a manned mission beyond low-Earth orbit since the final Apollo moon landing in 1972. NASA’s last manned U.S. mission anywhere happened way back in 2011, when the Obama administration scrapped the space shuttle program. Since then, astronauts have been hitching rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian spacecraft.
That’s not an “America first” philosophy.
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Perhaps, then, it’s merely a sign of these resurgent nationalistic times that talk of sending people into deep space is once again in vogue. Or maybe it’s a sudden desire of wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to escape a planet that, once again, seems too consumed with feuding and tribalism and navel-gazing over borders.
Either way, a renewed space race – this one shaping up between multinational corporations and governments – is an exciting distraction and could do a lot to sow unity around the world through the common language of science.
President Donald Trump’s administration has been pushing NASA to accelerate the timeline of a trip around the moon, long planned for 2021. A rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, and a capsule, Orion, would carry astronauts around the moon. The U.S., Trump said in his inaugural address, is “ready to unlock the mysteries of space.”
In that, he has a like-minded ally in Elon Musk, the California entrepreneur who is determined to launch a manned mission to colonize Mars in the coming years to ensure that humans become an interplanetary species.
In the meantime, Musk said Monday, his company SpaceX has taken on a high-stakes side project: ferrying two wealthy tourists to the moon and back. The weeklong journey, which could happen next year, would take the unidentified pair past the lunar surface and outward before the spacecraft surrenders to the pull of gravity and heads back to Earth.
All told, the trip would cover between 300,000 and 400,000 miles. And because we all know that, in space, no one can hear you scream, there are certainly risks.
Until SpaceX, only the Russian government has agreed to bring tourists to space – seven of them who have paid tens of millions of dollars to fly on Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station. The trip around the moon would be much farther.
Musk says the two would-be space tourists are “coming into this with their eyes open.” But so far, the spacecraft that would carry them – SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsule and Falcon Heavy rocket – are years behind schedule and haven’t even flown yet. Still, in classic, swaggering space race fashion, Musk isn’t too worried.
“This should be a really exciting mission,” he told The Associated Press, “that hopefully gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again.”
Indeed, it’s time America set its sights a little higher.