Forty years after the world watched Neil Armstrong take those historic first steps on the moon, space exploration has never been more important.
I’m too young to remember the space race or the long-awaited, much-hyped moon landing on July 20, 1969.
But, as a kid growing up in the ’70s, I experienced the afterglow. In the wake of that one giant leap, there was a sense of excitement and optimism about where we could go and what we might discover.
I was captivated by the idea of space, both real and fictional.
I saw “Star Wars” and wondered if people would be zooming around in spaceships in my lifetime. The summer I was 9, I clipped photos taken by the Pioneer and Voyager probes of Jupiter and Saturn out of Time magazine and glued them onto typing paper to make my own space book. I watched “Star Trek” re-runs with my dad and imagined myself beaming from place to place.
Three decades later, I’m still imagining. Though we haven’t been back to the moon since December 1972, we’ve accomplished some pretty amazing things through the space program, starting with the transition from Cold War rivalry to today’s International Space Station, where astronauts and cosmonauts not only co-exist but collaborate on projects that once existed only in science fiction books.
In our daily lives, Americans have benefited tremendously from technology developed for the space industry. Think of the cell phones, satellite radio and GPS gadgets that we use every day, or the live TV broadcasts from around the world that we take for granted.
None of this would be possible if we didn’t have the technology to launch satellites and keep them in orbit.
Satellite remote sensing technology also helps fishermen locate fish and firefighters find and map forest fires.
Many other everyday products, ranging from smoke detectors to polarized sunglasses, were first developed for the space industry.
The Apollo program, in particular, was the catalyst for the development of technological advances that we take for granted today. For example, Black & Decker developed its first cordless drill for NASA so that astronauts could drill down beneath the moon’s surface to collect samples.
And did you know that the medical imaging tools _ such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer-aided tomography (CT or CAT scan) and digital mammography _ routinely used in today’s hospitals to detect and diagnose diseases came from digital image processing technology developed in the mid-’60s for the Apollo mission?
Other technology developed for NASA or with NASA’s help is used to measure the health of our oceans, clean up oil spills, disable land mines, grow food without soil (hydroponics) and make air travel safer.
With all the problems and priorities fighting for our national attention and dollars these days, it might seem logical to place space exploration at the bottom of the list.
But with the global issues we are facing _ climate change, dwindling natural resources, the threat of large-scale natural disasters and widespread food shortages _ it has never been more vital.
Studying the Earth from the vantage point of space, and exploring the moon, our solar system and beyond could help us learn how to sustain life on our planet.
For example, with the information gleaned from sophisticated study of the Earth from space, we might learn to better predict or even prevent earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.
In 2010, NASA will launch the unmanned Glory spacecraft to gather information that will help us understand the effect of aerosols _ thought to cause much of our Arctic warming _ on the Earth’s climate. This information could be vital in efforts to curb global warming.
Satellites are already being used to monitor crops. But if we could learn to better predict – or even control – the weather, we’d take a tremendous leap toward alleviating world hunger and preventing food shortages.
And imagine: What if we could solve our energy crisis by figuring out how to harness just a fraction of the energy spilled out into space from the sun’s rays?
When you consider the benefits the space industry has provided in the past 40 years, the future possibilities, again, seem limitless.
With the International Space Station nearly complete and the space shuttle counting down its final missions, NASA is building a new fleet of vehicles to bring humans to the moon _ and maybe even Mars and beyond _ within the next few decades.
I may not see teleportation in my lifetime, but when the next generation of astronauts beams down streaming video from Mars, I’ll be watching.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.