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Rocket fuel for the soul

The Orion capsule, atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, waits to be launched at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Dec. 4. After a wind delay, the spacecraft was successfully launched Dec. 5.EPA/NASA

Did the lift-off of the Orion spacecraft catch you by surprise as much as it did me? We’re going to Mars? Since when?

Spaceflight has many detractors, yet a new NASA mission could prove a wonderful thing. Last Friday’s launch was un-manned, a test of a capsule that could be the first step in taking humans on trips of millions of miles and lasting multiple years. If things go well — and if funding is available — NASA hopes for a manned launch in 2021 and an exploratory mission in 2023. A flight to Mars, perhaps, might happen in the 2030s.

The movie “Interstellar” notwithstanding, I thought we had given up on this stuff. The last time humans went into deep space was two generations ago. Richard Nixon had just won his second term as president, and a month later, in December 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the last two humans to have walked on the moon.


Since then, well, we’ve just been too busy: impeachments, pardons, malaise, springtime in America, communism’s collapse, presidential nookie, war in Iraq, terrorism at home, another war in Iraq (and Afghanistan too!), and economic collapse. Really, isn’t that enough to occupy a superpower’s time? Yes, we did have the space shuttle system — 135 trips in all; two, sadly, ending in disaster — but that was piddling. Those launches were all low earth orbit, just a couple hundred miles above the planet’s surface. The moon, by contrast, is about 240,000 miles away.

It was all foolishness anyway, at least in the minds of some. “Is human spaceflight obsolete?” asked the late James Van Allen in 2004, and his answer was an unambiguous yes: “Risk is high, cost is enormous, science is insignificant.” Van Allen’s opinion mattered because he was a well-known space scientist; indeed, the Van Allen radiation belts, the mass of charged particles surrounding the earth, bear his name. Others jumped on the bandwagon. “If God wanted us to live in outer space, we wouldn’t have inner ears,” mocked Michael Lind, co-founder of the New America Foundation, a left-leaning think tank. (By that logic, however, I guess God also didn’t want us to get into boats and cross the oceans.)


The anti-space arguments begin with the observation that the race to the moon was less about science than it was international one-upmanship: Our rockets are bigger, fly faster, and travel farther than yours. Others question the scientific gains. NASA cites a lengthy list of spinoffs from spending on space, including infrared ear thermometers, Tempur-Pedic, and freeze-dried ice cream. Some are less than impressive; then too, one wonders whether simply spending NASA’s budget on direct R&D might have produced even more wonders. Moreover, the spinoff argument doesn’t really justify the underlying activity. Wars too generate enormous spinoffs in areas such as artificial limbs and emergency wound care. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to fight them.

And even when we do go into space, the naysayers claim, humans are unnecessary. Robots can do the job better and more cheaply — and without risking human life. As did voicemail with receptionists, robots can now replace astronauts.

Why, then, was the successful launch of Orion so thrilling?

Because we need to believe in something greater than just ourselves.

The arguments against manned spaceflight all miss the point. Apollo may have had its origins in the Cold War, but the rocketeers aboard those craft didn’t think of themselves as soldiers or generators of spinoffs. They were pioneers, representatives of humanity’s soul.


For the last four decades we have all, literally and figuratively, been grounded. We squabble over land and wealth. Our best and brightest devote themselves to creating new dating apps. We measure achievement in money and utility. We have lost, it seems to me, the ineffable — our sense of purpose.

What does it mean to be a superpower? We’re no longer the world’s biggest economy; China has those bragging rights. We have the strongest military but as we’re all too aware, sometimes might doesn’t mean much. So what then should the United States do? It’s unlikely that humanity as a whole will collectively unite to explore space. Some nation needs to seize the initiative. Some nation needs to take the risk. Some nation needs to inspire.

Why shouldn’t that nation be us?


James Abundis: America, NASA miss the comet

Editorial: Indian spacecraft is off to Mars, on a lean budget

Tom Keane can be reached at