Stars Above Mines: Why go where no man has gone before?

This past week was dominated by space history. It was 50 years ago last Tuesday that Yuri Gagarin became the first man to reach Earth orbit. 30 years ago on that same day, Columbia became the first Space Shuttle to leave the atmosphere, and 41 years ago on Thursday, a oxygen tank failure nearly left Apollo 13 lost to the stars. While these three events were powerful, each had its own ramifications. Gagarin died young in a jet crash, Columbia became one of the tragedies of the United States space program, and, though it made it back safely, Apollo 13 called to question some of the equipment and techniques of the day.

Space is dangerous, and not just on a large sense, but even very locally. When humans first escape out to the stars, they do not need to worry about supernovae or black holes just yet. There are much more immediate concerns, such as cosmic radiation, solar flares, and micrometeorite impacts. The smallest overlooked variable may be the downfall of countless years of research and development. So why would humans want to go to space? Where is the reward for all of the risk and work? For each individual this may be different, but perhaps as Carl Sagan said, “Exploration is in our nature; we began as wanderers and we are wanderers still.”

Space holds a vast array of discoveries, wonders, and resources, and while Earth has these as well, some day it will run out. If the human species is around at that time, it will be of utmost necessity that we strike out for the cosmos. Why wait for the fateful day when the Earth can no longer provide? Our planet is beautiful, and would it not be better to preserve its beauty than to rob it of everything before moving on?

Along with crucial elements for our survival, space may hold something else, life. It is highly unlikely that we are alone in the universe, and the benefit that could come from a sharing of knowledge between two different forms of life that have two entirely different histories could be astounding. That knowledge may be just what is needed for humans to make it to the end of everything, to those last moments of the universe.

May the stars shine brightly in your skies.

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