Friday, June 30, 2006

Has Man Lost His Backbone?

This morning I was reading a column by Rich Tucker that got me thinking about man's history and future.

Ever since the beginning of recorded history, each generation has had great explorers. Men (and women) who put their lives on the line to "boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before." In the beginning, they went over mountains to see what was on the other side. They crafted wooden ships to sail vast oceans and discover distant lands. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken for Christopher Columbus to load up three ships and sail into the horizon? Everyone told him he would sail off the end of the earth. But he was willing to take the chance. And for what? To bring back some beads and blankets?

Lewis and Clark took a crew of about 30 men with a few months worth of supplies and embarked on a multi-year journey to reach the Pacific Ocean. They fought off savage Indians, disease, grizzly bears and brutal elements just to create a map of uncharted territory.

In 1961, a 27 year old Soviet Major named Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. A little over three weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and the space race had begun. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong would step foot off of the Apollo 11 lunar module and uttered the words, "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."

But these men were all in search of more than beads, blankets, maps, and moon rocks. What pushed and fueled all of these men was the human instinct to explore. To be the first to see (blank) or step foot on (blank). We are naturally curious creatures. Ever since man has walked the earth there have been brave souls willing to put their lives on the line in order to explore the unknown. But now I fear that has changed.

Ever since Neil Armstrong's famous step, man has lost the desire to push his limits. The Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw calls them, put a man on the moon. I can remember as a young child in the 1970's there was still a buzz about the space program. Talk was everywhere of putting men on mars and space stations and eventually leaving our galaxy. But then the baby boomers came of age and all that talk ended. We created a space station so our space shuttle would have someplace to go. We focused on putting up satalites so American's can get 300 television channels and commercial free radio in their car. It seems our space program became more about creating jobs and keeping congressmen in office rather than extending the reach of man into God's universe.

Americans have become afraid of risk. It's evident everywhere in our society. Nothing is worth dying for anymore. We expect our wars to be conducted with zero casualties. At the first sign of blood, half our country wants to bring our troops home. After the Columbia crash in 2003 it took NASA over two years to launch another space shuttle mission. Concerns from that mission have prevented any other missions since. NASA's budget last year was somewhere around $16 billion. We made one launch. Where is the money going? Museums?

Rich Tucker rightly points out that the problem is our government, but I think his solution of encouraging private exploration is incomplete. All of the early exploration programs I mentioned before were government funded. The truth is no private citizen is going to put his fortune on the line without guarantee of rewards. There aren't many rich guys out there that can fund a space program. And of those rich guys, there are even fewer with the cajones to launch themselves into space. The solution is a hybrid of government and private citizens. The push to explore must come from government. Government needs to set the goal but allow the private sector to innovate and reward those willing to take risks. I was pleased when President Bush set the goal to put a man on Mars by 2020. That is only fourteen years away. As Americans we should all unite and push ourselves toward reaching this goal.