The rewards of an upward and outward vision

Despite a year of huge earthly challenges, the exploration of space has gone on, including many successful missions and firsts. Even more lies just ahead. 

Researchers work around the Chang'e-5 lunar return capsule carrying moon samples next to a Chinese national flag, after it landed in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region December 17, 2020.

More than a half-century ago the United States set out to send humans to the moon. That era also saw huge domestic upheaval over the expansion of civil rights to African Americans. It also saw the pursuit of a questionable war in Vietnam that deeply divided the nation. Yet in 1969 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. 

In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the racial protests and economic hardships that have accompanied it, has presented its own major challenge. 

Today space is being explored in a different fashion from that earlier era when the U.S. government flexed its economic and scientific muscle to defeat the Soviet Union in a race to the moon. No longer transfixed on that mission, explorers are moving ahead on a variety of fronts, from satellites in near-Earth orbit, to more lunar exploration, to visiting asteroids, to sending probes to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

And the U.S. is hardly alone anymore. Other nations’ ambitious space programs are bearing fruit. Recently China and Japan both scored impressive achievements in space: An unmanned Chinese mission returned soil samples to Earth from a previously unexplored part of the moon. And a Japanese craft landed on an asteroid and successfully brought back rock and gas samples. Scientists will need many years to extract all the knowledge about our solar system gained from these expeditions.

“Space is for everybody,” said Christa McAuliffe, the American educator and astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. “That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.” Her goal had been to help explain the larger meaning of space exploration to the world.

Even the strategy for how to explore space is undergoing a real-life test. China is making rapid strides using five-year plans and careful, incremental steps – in some ways reminiscent of the highly focused, top-down U.S. “moon shot” of the 1960s. 

Space exploration in the U.S. today is a mélange of government-private collaborations and several strictly private projects, including plans to visit Mars and space tourism, the perfect gift for the adventurous billionaire. 

The Biden administration will have to decide where to put space exploration on its list of priorities. If all still goes according to (admittedly ambitious) current plans, Americans will return to the moon in 2024, the first human visitors since the last Apollo mission departed 52 years earlier. One of the new explorers is expected to be the first woman to set foot there. 

“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever,” early 20th-century Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky famously advised. While earthly challenges rightly demand humanity’s serious attention, thoughts will always reach out into the universe with a longing to know it better.

Looking into the future, the founder of the Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote more than a century ago of a time when “The astronomer will no longer look up to the stars, – he will look out from them upon the universe.”

Whatever our earthly woes, that future of expansive possibilities will always beckon.

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