Our Future in Space

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I remember, vividly, a night when I was eight or nine years old. I was having a sleepover with my friend Bobby, and though we’d long ago turned off the lights, neither of us were asleep, or even all that tired.

We spent some time discussing the sorts of things that eight- or nine-year-old boys discuss, and then, after a stretch of silence, Bobby asked me, “Do you even think about space?”

“Space?” I said.

“Yeah,” Bobby told me. “Just . . . space.”

I knew he meant outer space, and not, say, my bedroom, the rectangular hunk of space we were just then occupying. Still, I didn’t quite understand him.

“Just think about it,” Bobby explained. “It’s infinite, you know? It goes on, forever and ever. And it’s always getting bigger. It goes on, in all directions, and it never stops.”

I knew these facts. I’d learned them in school, and before that had been introduced to them by my father. But maybe I was still too young back then. Maybe I needed to turn eight first. Or maybe it was the darkness of my bedroom that night. Maybe it was Bobby’s hushed voice, the awe apparent in it.

I don’t know. But that night, reconsidering these facts, I saw them for the first time in their proper majesty. For the first time, I experienced that rushing sensation in my brain, that dizzy, weightless feeling you get whenever your thoughts approach something too vast to squeeze into your mind.

It was intoxicating, and wonderful, and I’m pretty sure Bobby and I spent the next thirty minutes or so repeating those phrases over and over – infinite, forever and ever, always getting bigger, in all directions, never stops – chasing that feeling, thinking about the world and the universe and our place in it in a brand-new way.

I still get that feeling when I read about outer space – about the increasingly ambitious missions of our astronauts and entrepreneurs, about the increasingly sophisticated technology launched into orbit and the distant reaches of the void, about the increasingly thorough and yet, at the very same time, increasingly incomplete theories cooked up to account for what we’re seeing (and now hearing) out there. And that feeling – it’s just as intoxicating and profound today as it was on that long ago night, in the darkness of my bedroom, speaking in hushed tones with my buddy Bobby.

I was recently reminded of that night, and the way in which it seemed to actually physically expand and open my mind, while reading an interview with President Obama in the most recent issue of Popular Science.

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When asked about his vision for the future of space exploration (and space commercialization, the latter having become an integral part of the former), he said:

I’ve laid out a vision for space exploration where our astronauts travel out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay. To build a sustainable human presence in space, we’ll need a thriving private-sector space economy. I see the expanding space industry as an addition to, not a replacement for, the extraordinary work of NASA. With industry taking over tasks like ferrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station, NASA can focus even more intensely on the most challenging exploration missions, like landing astronauts on Mars or learning more about Earth and the rest of our solar system.

It’s a bold, ambitious vision, and a properly outward-looking one, too. It was, in my opinion, about as good of an answer as a sitting president could give.

However, Obama won’t be sitting for all that much longer. Less than a year from now, someone else will be occupying the chair in the oval office.

Space, and the exploration and commercialization of it, is not something that comes up much during presidential debates, stump speeches, or on political talk shows. But as pressing as the problems are here on Earth – and I am not in any way trying to deny or diminish their importance – I would find it extremely difficult to vote for a candidate who didn’t have as bold, ambitious, and outward-looking a vision of our future in space as Obama does.

Looking up and out into the universe does something profound and essential and, perhaps most importantly, something that cannot be replicated anywhere else or by anything else. It opens our minds to new and seemingly impossible possibilities, and paradoxically, in emphasizing the tininess of our lives in something so vast that it’s infinite, we become bigger. Bigger-hearted. Bigger-minded. In looking up and out, we become better equipped to look back down and deal with those pressing problems and issues here on Earth.

Let’s hope our next president knows that, and doesn’t ever forget it.

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