Letter to the Editor: Considering the loss of the space shuttle Columbia

To the Editor,

In this present moment of looming conflicts, ongoing assaults, and blundering abuses of economic and personal integrity around the world, it is clear we live in a human landscape at least as complex and crowded as in the past. This is a perennial problem: it is easy to lose sight of the future when the now shadows all considerations. But humans are not machines, not bound to any one response to a given stimulus. We can take the middle path, the choice of the present and the future.

This is what must be done with space exploration. There are so many obstacles, it sometimes seems hopeless. How do we construct research facilities and habitations on our system\’s moons? On Mars? How do we get out of the system? How do our bones survive for long years in space? Our minds? How do we work nation to nation without malice to answer these questions? How do we fund these answers without robbing money from where it is truly needed?

We live in a world of great wisdom and imagination – as well as great ignorance and greed. Which qualities will we send down the years to our descendants? Under failure\’s scrutiny, do we shrug and say \”you win?\” It is so much easier to look at the known present than the unknown frontier. It is so much easier to concern ourselves simply with who to feed and who to kill – we\’re accustomed to that form of complexity, at least. We can always leave the night sky for another generation to touch in their own time, can\’t we?

No. We cannot delay our exploration of space until humans resolve all their differences. When will that happen? We cannot wait until there is no starvation, no disease, no poverty – no more than we can conveniently ignore these miseries. We cannot wait until the majority of the world\’s citizens are truly inspired by the frontier above. We must open that frontier – not just for profit or militaristic dominance, and not just by scraps and glimpses – and watch as human inspiration swells in response.

This is a goal larger than national borders, larger than funding disputes, and larger than any thousand setbacks, disappointments, or disasters. This is a goal for which we should set aside the ghosts of past bickering, incompetence, and competition. Future earthlings will look at history and see what we did with the frontier of space. Will they say we condemned them? Will they say we gave up?

Or will they thank us? Will they bless our foresight? Will they wonder how we could have done it at all? In such a chaotic world, with such primitive, dangerous tools? And when they look at our rickety machines, our archaic words, our blithely confident smiles, and our wild ambitions, what will they be inspired to do by our example? Where will they go?

Whatever their destination, they will carry with them the legacy we create right now. What will it be? Shackles, or wings?

Thomas Kelley

Department of English