We All Have To Dream

“You have to dream. We all have to dream.” — Christa McAuliffe.

Fifty years ago Saturday night, between 600 million and 650 million people were watching on television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

What did they say to those watching with them? Something about the increase of scientific knowledge? Speculation about the economic prospects of space exploration? Admiration for the technological feat of sending human beings to the moon?

“Wow,” I said. “Wow,” echoed the friend watching with me. We — and, I’ll bet, the overwhelming majority of others who viewed the grainy, black-and-white broadcast — were excited. The moon landing was history in the making. It was a supreme can-do feat of the American people. It was, indeed, a giant leap forward technologically and scientifically. All that was true, intellectually speaking.

But emotionally, where it really counts for human beings, it was surpassingly more: It was a magnificent adventure. It was, as the “Star Trek” television series an movies noted, going where no human had gone before.

We human beings need that. We need to explore. We need to take risks. It’s wired into us, to an extent that psychologists study why humans sometimes do dangerous things solely because they are risky.

And we need to explore. We need to know what’s at the top of the mountain and the bottom of the ocean. We need to know what’s out there.

All of which makes the decades during which we backed away from space exploration a terrible shame.

Four things happened:

We Americans decided the moon was “been there, done that” stuff, despite the fact that only 12 people had ever set foot on the moon.

Second, we concluded the next step — sending someone to Mars — might be beyond our capability. Imagine that. Americans backing away from a challenge.

Third, policymakers decided there were better ways to spend money, right here on Earth.

And fourth, of course, the Challenger tragedy.

In 1985, it was decided that space travel was safe enough to offer the opportunity to a non-professional. Why not send a teacher up?

About 11,000 educators applied for the opportunity. Christa McAuliffe, of New Hampshire, was selected. On Jan. 28, 1986, she and six other astronauts were suited up and strapped into the space shuttle Challenger. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, their craft was blown apart. All aboard perished.

A few years later, in 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke apart on its trip home from a mission. Another seven astronauts died.

In missions and in training for them, 30 men and women have given their lives to space exploration.

Yet people still want to go up. Seven people have paid for the privilege. The first, American Dennis Tito, handed the Russians $20 million for a ride aboard a Soyuz rocket in 2001.

Very few of us can afford to buy a ride into space, even if one is available. But we can dream.

After decades of stagnation in NASA funding, it is being increased. After many years during which we settled for unmanned probes, talk of going to Mars has resumed.

Good. McAuliffe was right. We all have to dream.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.


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