Along with many others, this past weekend I saw the film Interstellar. I found it a visual masterpiece, with a story of perseverance and hope for the future. In the early parts of the film the hope was not evident beyond a small, mostly hidden fraction of the population. As evidenced by the teacher’s insistence the Moon landings were hoaxes, people had drawn back into an Earth-bound shell without even acknowledging the explorations of the past.
Coming back to the real world, some of the events of the past couple of weeks have demonstrated both the exhilaration of exploration as well as the tendency of some to want to retreat to the safety of home where the risk is slight. The definite highlight is the landing of Philae (the lander part of the Rosetta spacecraft) on a comet, a first in the history of space exploration. The low points were the destruction of an Antares rocket soon after launch on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, and the breakup of SpaceShip Two on a test flight, resulting in the death of the co-pilot. The last event, in particular, has many people raising their voices and suggesting humans have no business sending their fellows into space. It is a sad occurrence every time a life is lost in the furtherance of knowledge and exploration. However, history is filled with examples of people losing their lives trying to go just a little farther, a little higher, or to obtain the one piece of elusive information needed to advance our science or culture. Where would we have been had people given up after each tragedy?
One of the interesting aspects is it is always the people closest to the accidents who advocate the loudest for continuing the quest to go farther, go higher, and to learn a little bit more. I think it is the personal connection that strengthens the resolve to continue to live the question, even if it means someone dies trying to add to the answer.
I had never met any of the astronauts who flew on either the Challenger or the Columbia. However, I do have a personal connection that made the Columbia accident very real to me. In the summer of 2002, while attending a NASA Educational Workshop at NASA Ames Research Center, we were briefed on some of the life science experiments scheduled to fly on STS-107, the designation for what would become Columbia’s last mission. The briefing included a viewing of some of the hardware for the experiments. This hardware eventually became some of the debris scattered across Texas and Louisiana. When the news broke about the accident, I brought out the photographs I had taken. While this connection served to make the accident more real to me, creating a much greater emotional connection to the loss, it also served to strengthen my resolve that human exploration of space is a necessity, even with the associated risk.
For me, this is the message in Interstellar, never give up the quest to go farther, go higher, to find that one crucial piece of information necessary to advance human knowledge and ability to do more. To give up is to sentence ourselves to a stunted life as a species without growth. Unfortunately there are many among us who would have us stay put, and deny the necessity of exploring, as well as the need to act to take care of the planet we live on. Without action now, the likelihood of a future such as in the early parts of Interstellar, is very real. And perhaps that is the real message: act now to avoid having to depend on the heroism of future generations to save humanity from what we have wrought. Let the current heroes, the scientists, the astronauts, the test pilots do what they do best, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and abilities into actions that shape the future.