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What on Earth For?

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The space race is heating up again! But should it? Are the benefits of space travel worth the risks? Our efforts in the final frontier need perspective.

Why Are We in Space?

With so many problems at home,
what are we hoping to achieve?
Are the rewards of space travel worth
the risks, or are we missing something?

It was June of 1969, and a pilot was taking a strange-looking contraption on a practice flight—an awkward machine, not practical for traveling at all. It was dangerous and difficult to operate. Inside was a primitive computer that was supposed to control the flight, but it didn’t work very well, and when the computer failed, the pilot took over. No matter. It was going to crash. This pilot had cheated death more than once and had a reputation for staying with his plane until the very last moment—only an instant before it was too late to eject.

Only a month later, this same pilot would fly a similar contraption on one of the most daring adventures in the history of man, and there would be no room for error. On July 16, 1969, our daring pilot and two other brave men sat atop the equivalent of a huge firecracker, waiting to be blasted from the face of the earth. If successful, this 6-million-pound, 36-story Roman candle would take three men safely to their destination a quarter of a million miles away—the Moon.

Four days after launch, our pilot was once again at the controls of one of these funny flying machines, but this time there was no ejecting and no going back. They were on a trajectory taking them to the first Moon landing and a place in the history books.

After circling the Moon a number of times, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bade farewell to fellow astronaut Mike Collins, separated their lunar lander module from the Apollo 11 spacecraft, and began their descent. From twelve miles up, Armstrong and Aldrin flew over the face of the Moon and began falling toward its surface. Everything went smoothly, by the book, but around 2,000 feet from the surface, alarms sounded. The computer could not handle the data and failed. Armstrong took over the controls.

Remarkable Daring

In that situation, procedures called for the mission to be aborted, but Armstrong continued, and no one was going to try to stop him. Landing a lunar module has been described as attempting to land a Boeing 747 from the passenger cabin. However, this was not the only problem. The landing site was strewn with large boulders, and with fuel running precariously low, an alternate site had to be found. Still, eventually there came those comforting words to a listening world that had been sitting on the edge of its seat: “The Eagle has landed.”

No one knows for sure, but according to a CBS news source, our brave astronauts may have had as little as seven seconds of fuel remaining, certainly no more than a minute, before they would have been unable to abort the landing and rejoin Mike Collins in the command module orbiting the Moon. There could have been no rescue. Death would have been a certainty.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, and the immortal words Neil Armstrong uttered on July 20, 1969: “That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” He spoke these words as he became the first human being to set foot on the Moon. Over the next three and a half years, fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin and ten other men followed in his footsteps, but he was the first to walk on the Moon, and no one has done so since December 1972.

Conspiracy buffs deny the manned moon-landings even happened, and probably nothing will persuade them otherwise. Virtually all of their objections have been shot down, and numerous independent confirmations from around the world attest to the fact of the six landings. One of the strongest confirmations comes from the former Soviet Union. To this day, Russia has never disputed these landings, even though they were major public relations achievements for the United States in the middle of the Cold War. If anyone would have known the landings to be fraudulent, the Soviets would have, through their own technologies and surveillance systems.

Japan, India, and China are all considering manned missions to the Moon after the 47-year intermission, and one may wonder why it is taking humanity so long to continue this great adventure. At the time of the first landings, there was a widespread feeling that this was the beginning of man’s exploration of the universe. After all, did not Neil Armstrong suggest that, as he stepped onto the Moon with the words, “one giant leap for mankind”?

In many respects, it appears that the “giant leap” was put on hold.

A Passion to Return… But at a Price

However, we are now seeing a resurging interest “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Other nations are getting in on the act. Private companies are building rockets and offering opportunities for space tourism. There is even talk about going to Mars.

In 2013, Mars One, a private Dutch company, began advertising a one-way trip to the red planet to begin a colony. They claimed as many as 200,000 eager volunteers from around the world, and pared their list down to 100, planning to embark on the journey as early as 2023.

Skeptics believe the whole enterprise to be a scam, as the necessary technology simply does not exist at this time. According to The Verge network, Mars One filed for bankruptcy on January 15, 2019, giving credence to the skeptics’ claims. Whether the problem is outright fraud or the result of overly optimistic ambitions remains to be seen. What this failed venture does highlight is that space travel is not as easy as many think. It is costly and complicated, and this helps to explain the 47-year hiatus.

Space travel has captured man’s imagination for well over a century. Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon tells the story of three men shot from a cannon to the Moon. Well, at least Verne had the destination and number of men correct, but space travel has proven to be a daunting task, even when traveling to our nearest neighbor. 

The consensus that developed shortly after the first manned lunar landings was that the cost and effort makes space travel impractical. One Apollo moon mission was scrubbed as unnecessary, and three others were cancelled due to cost. Over time, the public also learned the lesson that traveling beyond our planet can be dangerous. Both Russia and the U.S. have suffered multiple deaths in attempts to explore regions beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and Israel’s Ilan Ramon was one of the astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia when it broke apart on reentry. Numerous “near misses” attest to the dangers of these adventures.

We live on a beautiful home that we call Earth. We have everything we need to live abundant and happy lives. We have, nevertheless, an innate desire to explore, and the “final frontier” seems to beckon us onward. But as we have learned from experience, the universe beyond our atmosphere is a hostile environment. It may appear exciting, but the reality is very different. There is a sense of realism in astronaut Scott Kelly’s description of his yearlong adventure aboard the International Space Station. We see pictures of men and women floating in zero-gravity inside the station, but hear little about the problem of carbon-dioxide buildup that causes headaches and dullness of mind. We see movie scenes of astronauts floating about, like George Clooney and Sandra Bullock did in the movie “Gravity,” but that glorified fiction is far from the reality. Sitting in a cramped position for hours while wearing a terribly uncomfortable suit, waiting in preparation for a space walk, is simply not something that can be conveyed well in a 90-minute movie—nor is the reality of wearing “space diapers,” needed due to the inability to remove one’s suit during the hours of waiting, launch time, and work in space. Bottom line: Space travel is not as glamorous as it appears on television and in the movies.

Riding atop tons of volatile solid and liquid fuel in massive rockets is dangerous. This is something I viewed firsthand in the 1960s while living on Vandenberg Air Force Base on the coast of California. When a missile was launched, we all scrambled to get outside and watch, whether at home or school. The combination of sounds, sights, and a rumble you can feel as a rocket takes off is something to behold. And as teenagers, we were never disappointed when one blew up or had to be destroyed if it went off course. At that stage of life, we did not pay the taxes that funded the missile, and the explosions beat all other fireworks displays. While all the launches from the West Coast were unmanned, those missiles used the same volatile fuel source as did the manned flights, and these powerful launches illustrated to my young mind the dangers involved. A lot can and does go wrong.

A Question Worth Asking

I have no interest in discouraging man’s quest for adventure and desire to explore the unknown. However, the question must be asked, “Go to the Moon—what on earth for?”

Each of us takes everyday risks, whether we think of it that way or not. This is true in hundreds of ways, but most obviously when we get into a car, bus, train, or plane. There is always a risk that something will go wrong. You take a risk when the doctor operates on you, and as television advertisements make clear, you take risks anytime you take the latest medicine. After the first part of an ad for a wonder medicine—complete with smiling people playing Frisbee with a happy dog—come the warnings. And the next ad is from a law office suing the pharmaceutical companies for their mistakes. Even taking in food carries with it a slight risk—remember the Heimlich Maneuver?

When it comes to venturing into space, most of us would prefer to keep our feet solidly on the ground. Space travel calls for a special kind of risk-taker. The adrenaline rush that comes from living on the edge is why many astronauts are former test pilots. It cannot be easy for family members to live with such individuals, always wondering what new way their relative has found to kill himself. When things go wrong, parents, spouses, and children are left behind, no doubt appreciating the fame that comes with being associated with someone so adventurous, but one has to wonder what children think as they grow up without the parent who chased after his or her dream. Surely many are proud of their family member, now gone, but how many of them would trade anything to have their loved one back in their lives, safe and sound?

In the end, we must again ask, “What on earth for?” To be sure, many inventions we enjoy resulted from the space program. Much progress in computer miniaturization is a direct result. New materials have been developed and applied in mundane ways to enhance everyday life. We know more about the universe around us, though much of that knowledge is neither necessary nor requires humans to leave Earth to discover it. We can thank space exploration for communication satellites, and one might suggest that they have made life better—but have they really? Have we forgotten that we lived quite nicely prior to smart phones and satellite navigation? Nice… but necessary?

What possible knowledge will we discover that will make any eternal difference to our lives here below? Have we learned to get along better as a result of space exploration? One could point to the International Space Station and note that astronauts from former enemy nations work together in harmony, and that is true. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year together on the Space Station and no doubt deeply respect and trust one another, but what about their two countries?

And let us come closer to home. How has space exploration improved the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and neighbors? The answer is obvious: not at all.

One could even counter that space exploration has made our world more dangerous. From the very beginning, military interests have been intertwined with exploring our surroundings. Sputnik was cute, but far from the whole story of what satellites were about. The public was enamored with moonwalks and micro-gravity, but behind it all were military experiments and missions. Vandenberg AFB launched satellites to spy on Russia, and we are naïve if we think Russia did not spy on America, as well. Our governments tested multiple missile reentry systems, by which a single rocket could deliver multiple nuclear warheads. Satellites orbit overhead to guide drones and target smart bombs. That is why a future war could start in space, as each nation tries to destroy the other’s command-and-control satellites.

Some decry any use of space for warfare, pleading, “Don’t militarize space!” But space was militarized from the beginning. That is what the “space race” was about in the 1950s and 60s. Going to the Moon captured the attention of the public, but gaining the strategic high ground was the game being played between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now we have a call for a new branch of the American military—a Space Force. What we fundamentally see in space exploration is an extension of humanity’s differences playing out on a new frontier, as each power strives to gain and maintain the upper hand.

Outside each gateway into Vandenberg Air Force Base were billboards reading, “Strategic Air Command—Peace is Our Profession.” (SAC was decommissioned in 1992, and replaced by the United States Strategic Command.) The message was understandable: When you are stronger than your enemy, or at the very least able to ensure “Mutually Assured Destruction,” there will be an absence of nuclear war—or at least a deterrent. Of course, that is only if there is no technical glitch or miscalculation on one side or the other.

Imagination Meets Reality

Space exploration captures our imagination. Children see images that encourage them to go where few have gone before. Television news and motion pictures glamorize space walks and floating gravity-free. Anywhere you can see Earth from space has to be the ultimate vacation hot spot. Who doesn’t want to float in micro-gravity, but what about the nausea and vomiting that usually accompany the adjustment?  “The Martian” is entertaining as far as movies go, but far from reality. Men and women capture our imagination in fictional films when they appear to walk about on faraway planets—without wearing diapers (or “nappies”), awkward and restrictive protective suits, or bulky oxygen tanks, and without sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours. But reality fails the fun test. Ultimately, the greatest truth about space exploration is found in the title of the Star Wars saga.

I am not knocking exploration. The human race needs risk-takers. But one does have to wonder about the sanity of anyone who really thinks a one-way ticket to Mars is a good idea.

Our problems and our challenges are here on Earth. Going elsewhere to start all over again will solve none of our fundamental issues. Human nature—selfish desire, pride, hurt feelings, hatred, and the resulting violence—will be our travel companions. Nearly 2,000 years ago, an ancient prophet described the nature of man: “Their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isaiah 59:6–8).  

Many find it impossible to believe, but peace will eventually come, though not in the way humanity expects. Another prophet appeared more than 700 years after Isaiah and predicted what we now know is possible: the destruction of all life from the face of the earth (Matthew 24:21–22). In the face of such a prospect, we might think it necessary to begin colonies elsewhere, but that is not the solution.

The solution is the coming of the One who made that prediction, because He is more than a prophet. Isaiah predicted the time when that Savior will return to rescue mankind from its destructive ways: “Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:3–4).

Space exploration fascinates us. Going to the Moon and returning safely shows the spirit and daring of mankind, but in the end, we must again ask regarding the enterprise, “What on earth for?” It surely has not brought harmony here below, nor will it ever do so. Peace will come, but not from man’s scientific discoveries, whether in space or here on terra firma. Earth is man’s home, and Earth is where peace will finally be established!


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