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Derrick Z. Jackson

Space travel can still inspire us

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / June 4, 2011

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I AROSE at 3:30 AM one morning this week to watch the space shuttle Endeavor and the International Space Station follow each other across the sky. They rose up from one horizon and glowed as bright as Venus by the time they zoomed overhead.

That glow recalled America’s manned space program as it once was. The outburst of energy that began with Mercury’s Shepard, Grissom, and Glenn continued with Gemini’s Young, Cooper, and Borman and peaked as Apollo’s Armstrong, Lovell, and Aldrin reached the moon.

But just as sure as Endeavor and the space station dimmed as they headed toward the opposite horizon, so did the space program. No matter how intricate and dangerous their tasks, shuttle space walkers shrank in the popular imagination to appliance-repair people. As inspiring it was to see the first women and people of color go into space, the country was literally stuck in orbit. As Endeavor and the space station disappeared from view, I wondered: Is our vision for space is also fading to black?

“It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore,’’ declared Mark Kelly, the commander of the just-concluded Endeavor mission, the next-to-last for the shuttles. But President Obama nixed President Bush’s plan to return to the moon in 2015 or so, opting for a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid and perhaps Mars over a longer term. In the meantime, missions to the space station would become commercial enterprises.

Such plans are so vague that Neil Armstrong and other Apollo astronauts have been pleading with Congress and the public to return human space flight to the priority President Kennedy gave it 40 years ago. Apollo’s Gene Cernan has said that Obama’s current plan “presents no challenges, has no focus, and is in fact a blueprint for a mission to nowhere.’’

What priority should we place on human space flight at this very moment? It is easy to argue that human space flight has to wait until we extricate ourselves from two wars and the worst economy since the Great Depression. Then again, you could say Apollo was badly needed proof Americans could do something right, amid the misery of Vietnam and the race riots in American cities. You could ask what business we have on Mars, when we have so fouled our home planet. Or you could say we have to get off this planet sometime in the next few billion years, so we better get cracking now.

What is clear to me is that space exploration — probably just by robots in the short term, but certainly by humans in the long term — will play a critical psychic role in helping Americans look outward again. Whether it involves the courage of astronauts, the infinite artificial eye of Hubble, or the marvelous mechanical Mars rovers, space exploration invokes a curiosity unlike anything on earth.

Since the moon landings, though, our curiosity has been directed elsewhere. We often hear that individual cell phones, personal computers, and cars involve more computing power than the Apollo missions did.

But for all that power, today’s gadgets often enable us to turn inward. We respond like shocked lab rats at every incoming text message, oblivious to the person sitting across the table. Drivers and pedestrians on cellphones are so lost in earthly space that laws are cropping up to get people to stop yakking and pay attention. The global connections we can make with our laptops have not kept us from becoming the fattest Americans in history, or from falling behind Asian and European countries in science education.

In his man-on-the-moon speech, Kennedy said, “It will not be one man going to the moon . . . it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.’’ As we used Apollo to respond to the Cold War, a clearly defined space program now, with exciting goals for astronauts as well as robotic probes, could help revive American scientific innovation — and just plain human curiosity.

We need more than a Mars mission a quarter century or more from now to create a blueprint for a mission to somewhere.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.