The current divisiveness that seems to be permeating our culture has many wondering if we can ever overcome the divisions to find our common humanity, and be able to work together to solve our problems. I’ve said – only somewhat jokingly — that if there are any alien species out there, waiting to make first contact with the people of Earth in order to unify our planet, now would be a good time.
I saw a quote last week, where in remembering astronaut John Glenn, Bill Nye said “Space exploration brings out our best.”
I really believe that. Space exploration challenges us to not only to be and do our best, but reach beyond the ordinary, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then to push even further. That “intangible desire to explore and challenge the boundaries of what we know and where we have been,” as NASA has phrased it, has provided benefits to our society for centuries. With space exploration, our desire to answer fundamental questions about our place in the Universe can not only help to expand technology, but it helps us look at things in new ways and it seems to help foster a sense of cooperation, and – if I may – peaceful and enduring connections with our fellow humans.
If we could only look for and encourage the best in each other, and simply spend time cooperating and working together, I think we’d be amazed at what we could accomplish.
The people involved in space exploration already do that.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with some of our best, brightest and boldest and witness the cooperation and respect that it takes for space missions to succeed. Over the past several months, I interviewed 37 NASA scientists and engineers from current robotic missions for a book I wrote, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” In all these stories these scientists and engineers shared with me, several things stood out.
Space exploration offers an incredible example of cooperation. Getting a mission off the ground and keeping it operational for as long as possible takes an amazing amount of cooperation. A delightful children’s book titled “Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon” by Catherine Thimmesh shows how it took hundreds of thousands of people from not just the United States, but also from around the world to send the astronauts to the Moon. From rocket scientists to the seamstresses that sewed the spacesuits together, to the radio operators around the globe that monitored communications, each person, each step was an important link in the chain of what it took to make the Apollo 11 mission possible.
And while my book focuses on NASA missions (I really wish traveling abroad to include missions from other space agencies would have been in my budget!) almost all robotic missions these days are international ventures.
Helmut Jenkner, who is currently the Interim Head of the Hubble Space Telescope Mission, told me that the international nature of the Hubble mission has brought an inherent diversity to the project. The diverse approach to solving problems has helped Hubble be such a successful mission, and with Hubble in space for nearly 27 years, Jenkner said that diverse approach has helped the Hubble mission to endure.
In virtually all robotic missions, scientists from around the world work together and provide their expertise from building instruments to analyzing the data. Working across borders and languages can be difficult, but for the mission to succeed, cooperation is essential. Because of the common goal of mission success, differences from major to petty can be put aside.
On a robotic spacecraft, the many different components and instruments on board are built by different companies, sometimes in several different countries, but yet all the pieces have to fit together perfectly in order for a mission to succeed. Just putting together a mission concept takes an incredible amount of cooperation from both scientists and engineers, as they need to figure out the great compromise of what is possible versus what would be ideal.
I don’t mean to be completely Pollyanna here, as certainly, there are personality conflicts, and I know there are people involved in space missions who have to work side-by-side with someone they don’t really like or don’t agree with. There is also intense competition: the competition for missions to be chosen to get sent to space, the rivalry for who gets to lead and make important decisions, and disagreements on the best way to proceed in times of difficulty. But yet, these people work it out, doing what is necessary in order for the mission to succeed.
Space exploration brings out a sense of inclusiveness. Many of the Apollo astronauts have said that when they traveled to other countries following the missions, people around the world would say how proud they were that “we went to the Moon.” It wasn’t just the US, but “we humans” did it.
When the Curiosity rover landed, when Juno went into orbit around Jupiter, when the Rosetta mission successfully went into orbit around a comet (and then when the mission ended), when New Horizons successfully flew by Pluto, my social media feeds were filled with people around the world rejoicing together.
Being inclusive and encouraging diversity are “mission critical” for going to space, said astrophysicist Jedidah Isler at the recent White House Frontiers Conference. “We have both the opportunity and the obligation to engage our entire population in this epic journey [into space],” she said.
Also at White House Frontiers, President Obama said that “Problem solving through science, together we can tackle some of the biggest challenges we face.”
Dedication and Commitment
Another human aspect that stood out during my interviews is the dedication and commitment of the people who work on these missions to explore the cosmos. Interview after interview, I was amazed by the enthusiasm and excitement embodied by these scientists and engineers, their passion for what they do. I truly hope that in the book, I was able to capture and convey their incredible spirit of exploration and discovery.
Space exploration takes people working long hours, figuring out how to do things that have never been done before, and never giving up to succeed. Alan Stern, Principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto explained how it took “dedication from 2,500 people around the country who worked all day plus nights and weekends for over 15 years” for the mission to makes its successful flyby of Pluto in July 2015. The dedication continues as the New Horizons team has their sights on another ancient body in the Kuiper Belt that the spacecraft will explore in January 2019.
Taking the larger view.
Space exploration helps us look beyond ourselves.
“A lot of space exploration is taking you out of the trees so you get a glimpse of the forest,” Rich Zurek told me when I visited him at JPL this year. Zurek is the head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, as well as the Project Scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. “A classic example is the Apollo 8 view of the Earth over the Moon’s horizon. You can imagine what the planet looks like but when you actually see it, it is very different and can evoke many different things.”
The first views of Earth from space and seeing the fragileness of our planet from a distance help launch the environmental movement in the 1970’s, which continues today. That planetary perspective is crucial to the future of humanity and our ability solve world-wide problems.
“Working on a project like this gives meaning in general because you are doing something that is outside of yourself, outside of our personal problems and struggles, and you really think about the human condition,” said Natalie Batalha, who is the mission scientist for the Kepler missions’ hunt for planets around distant stars. “Kepler really makes us think about the bigger picture of why we’re here and what we’re evolving towards and what else might be out there.”
Space explorations expands our horizons, feeds our curiosity, and helps us finding all sorts of unexpected things while helping to answer profound questions like how did the Universe begin? How did life begin? Are we alone?
Does that sound too utopian? Like in Star Trek, space exploration offers an optimistic view of the future, and humanity. Star Trek’s “Infinite Diversity from Infinite Combinations” says the only way we grow is through new ideas and experiences, and as soon as we stop exploring, we stop growing.
“We are all confined to Earth but yet we reach out and undertake these grand adventures to space,” said Marc Rayman, who is the director and chief engineer for the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt. He is one of the most passionate people – passionate about space exploration and life itself — I’ve ever talked to. “We do this in order to comprehend the majesty of the cosmos and to express and act upon this passion we feel for exploration. Who hasn’t looked at the night sky in wonder? Who hasn’t wanted to go over the next horizon and see what is beyond? Who doesn’t long to know the universe?”
“Anyone who has ever felt any of those feelings is a part of our mission,” Rayman continued. “We are doing this together. And that’s what I think is the most exciting, gratifying, rewarding and profound aspect of exploring the cosmos.”