“Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will not fear even that void…” – Johannes Kepler (in a letter to Galileo), 1593
It was a pleasant Saturday morning. I was with my family in our rental car, headed to the Challenger Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. There, in about a half-hour, I was scheduled to give my very first reading of Max Goes to the Moon—my children’s book in which humans finally return to the Moon to build a permanent colony and great astronomical observatories. Music was playing on the radio, with my kids singing along in the back seat. Suddenly, the station cut away to a news bulletin. NASA had lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia.
It did not take long to realize that a catastrophe had occurred. I could not hold back the tears as I tried to explain to Grant, now four and a half years old, what had happened. I did not know how I would be able to do my reading. But when we arrived at the Challenger Center—which is part of a wonderful legacy created by the families of the Challenger astronauts—there was an eager group of Girl Scouts waiting for me. I went ahead with the reading in the Challenger Center’s Mission Control room, and afterward we all participated in a simulated mission to the Moon. The girls had heard the news of the accident, but they were still willing astronauts. They were old enough to understand sadness and death, but young enough to hold on to their dreams.
And that is how I began to think about what we might really learn from Columbia. In the aftermath, most of our leaders and pundits are saying the right things. They remind us that the astronauts were heroes—fearlessly entering the void of which Kepler wrote more than 400 years ago. They assure us that we will honor the astronauts by continuing our commitment to space exploration. They promise to learn what went wrong, fix the problem, and fly again.
But if you listen carefully, I fear that the real lesson of Columbia may be coming through silently in the words that are not being said. There are lots of words about the fact that space travel will always be dangerous—but little talk about why we can’t do better than to fly astronauts into space with 1970s technology. There are promises to give NASA a few hundred million dollars for safety improvements—but it would take $50 billion a year to put NASA back at the funding levels it had when we sent astronauts to the Moon. There are commitments to continue “America’s journey into space”–but if we liken the Apollo Moon landings to the voyages of Columbus, our commitment to the Space Station is like a Spanish commitment to Gibraltar. The Moon is approximately one thousand times farther from Earth than the Space Station. The missing words are the ones that might have come from the Girl Scouts— the ones that challenge us to dream of reaching farther and then to work hard to make the dreams come true.
The real message of Columbia is that we are a nation that has forgotten how to dream. Even many of my fellow scientists—often the very same people who entered science because they were inspired by Apollo—now wonder if we should leave space exploration to the robots. A substantial fraction of the populace wonders if we should explore space at all, suggesting instead that we spend the money on social causes. But is there any greater social cause than inspiration? What would it mean to the world if children everywhere could look up at the full moon, and know that people from their own nation were right now living and working there?
Our lack of dreams poses a grave danger to the soul of our nation. Where once our leaders promised to build a nation to stretch from sea to shining sea, they now promise only to protect what we have and cut our taxes. Where once we spoke of spreading liberty for all around the world and created a Marshall Plan to change our former enemies into friends, we now offer so little aid to the downtrodden that we have no leverage to counter the fanatics who teach only hatred to their children. Where once we landed people on the Moon just 8 years after our President challenged us to do it, we’ve now spent more than 20 years debating the successor to the Space Shuttle, with no decision yet in sight. We are the most affluent and powerful nation in the history of the human race, but we behave like a frightened miser hiding in a castle behind wrought iron gates, hoping that we can keep the outside world at bay.
Yet it is not difficult to imagine a way that we could rekindle our dreams, for there are plenty of dreams to be had. Just ask any Girl Scout. Moon colonies and missions to Mars are only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine going anywhere on this planet, and always hearing the children say with conviction “There goes an American, one of our true friends in this world.” Imagine providing every child with a great teacher in a great school, so that no one need be held back by the circumstances of their birth. Imagine ending our dependence on foreign oil and the inevitable threat of global warming in one fell swoop, by undertaking a Manhattan Project to develop new and safer energy sources. On this last point, consider this: if we could build a controlled nuclear fusion reactor that could run on ordinary hydrogen, the water flowing from the faucet of your kitchen sink could yield enough power to replace every current power source in the entire United States. The technical purists will point out that ordinary hydrogen is an unlikely fuel for fusion power plants, and that it would be technologically more feasible to build plants that could burn a fuel such as helium-3—which just so happens to be readily available on the Moon.
None of these dreams are beyond our reach, if only we had the will to grab hold of them. Some will claim that cost is a problem. But in a nation that can plunge into debt to the tune of $300 billion a year while barely flinching an eyeball, it’s difficult to argue that we couldn’t find $50 billion for NASA, $100 billion for new energy research, or $200 billion for a new, global Marshall Plan. Our nation has plenty of great ideas. It has plenty of resources. It has plenty of brainpower. The only thing lacking is a willingness to dream.
So let’s look once more at the lessons of Columbia. There is no doubt that we mourn Columbia because of the tragic loss of seven lives, but that cannot be why it touches us so deeply. After all, while the lost crew members were as heroic a group as will ever be found, if they had died in car accidents only their loved ones would have known they were gone. We mourn them not because of who they were as individuals, but because we know that true dreams still burned in their hearts. Their loss leaves a little less of the flickering hope that the rest of us may yet have our dreams rekindled. Thus, the true lesson of Columbia is that, deep down, we really do still care. Let’s hope that we find in ourselves the strength to resist the siren song of short-term but ultimately futile self-interest, and challenge ourselves to rise to our greatest aspirations. It is too late to save the crew of Columbia. It is not too late to honor them by casting fear aside, and asserting our power to dream.