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Do we need spaceflight for the perspective?

An astronaut's life-changing lesson from a moment in orbit.

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During dinner with Mitchell, he spoke of the timeless human urge to explore, to move into new places both physically and figuratively, and to enlarge our sense of awe and imagination of human possibilities. Space travel has rightly been regarded as one of the great technological achievements of our times. But is it more than this?

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I was hoping that the show at the Museum of Natural History would address these larger spiritual and philosophical questions. But the exhibition, sponsored by the aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, focuses narrowly on the technical challenges of the space program and the new generation of hardware that is being developed to meet them.

Museum visitors walk through the scaled down mock-up of a proposed base at Shackleton Crater near the moon's south pole; past the model of a space elevator, whose cable would stretch 28,000 miles from the lunar surface; then on to a full-scale replica of the Mars Science Laboratory Rover, which is scheduled to land on the red planet this August.

Much has changed since the heady early days of spaceflight, when, fueled by cold-war rivalries, the United States and the Soviet Union spared no expense to send the first astronauts into orbit and eventually to the moon. The last manned mission to the moon was in 1972. Since then, NASA has focused on the space shuttle program and sending unmanned robotic probes to the planets, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, which has transmitted never-before-seen images of the far reaches of the universe.

Is space travel a pointless luxury or a psychic necessity? How will venturing still farther into space change our view of ourselves? Are we ready to do so? I wish the museum show had explored these questions. But since it didn't, we'll end with the visionary words of Mitchell from an interview with The Examiner:

"[W]e will go to Mars, in due course, and back to the Moon, in due course. When we do that it's going to sound a little foolish when we say, 'I came from the United States, Canada, or Britain, or Germany, or Israel, or Russia.'

"No, we came from the Earth and we haven't got our act together yet because we're still too busy killing each other over whose god is the best god. We are not learning to view ourselves as an advanced, evolving civilization. That is what we really must learn to do ... if we [are] to survive."

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