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The New Space Age Begins
February 6, 2015
by J.A. Young
An artist's depiction of the Orion spacecraft that will lead future NASA missions.

The Philae probe, launched on 4 March 2004 by the European Space Agency, made history when it landed on a nearby comet recently, paving the way for a rich near future of extraterrestrial science and industry.

We should not be discouraged that some of our most exciting future developments are still years in the future, even if that means we ourselves will not be there to witness them. It is true that the timeline for implementing the Orion program is lengthy. The rocket which carried the Orion craft into it’s four-hour, two-orbit trek around Earth during EFT-1 is not the same one that will be used on future missions. For astronauts to make the long journey all the way from low-earth orbit to even the most conveniently located asteroid will require a much larger rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS. This rocket booster is intended to be the successor to the well-known Saturn V, which served as the flagship launch vehicle for NASA throughout the Space Race, taking astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong all the way to the moon.  The hype following the successful test of Orion quickly died down when people realized that the SLS has yet to be built.

One of the reasons that people became disinterested in the test launch so quickly is not because we are years away from heading to the Red Planet. It’s because the people who do understand the importance of the achievement are not doing a good enough job of explaining it to everyone else. The scientific community is not emphasizing the importance of the event to the general public the same way that they did with past space programs. It’s not that NASA’s new program isn’t exciting enough, or that it’s not important. It’s simply that we have not done a good job of explaining what this means for the human race. The social, political and economic repurcussions of future missions using the SLS and Orion will change the face of society, and we have to make that point clear.

As of right now the deployment of the SLS rocket is scheduled for 2017 at the earliest, while a manned mission to an asteroid sits somewhere around the early 2020’s and reaching Mars is conservatively estimated around 2030. With that said, human space exploration has already taken giant leaps over the past several years. In addition to the launch of the Philae probe and the success of the Curiosity rover on Mars, the Voyager 1 probe is continuing to send back data years after it was supposed to break down, and for the first time in history we have private companies like SpaceX that are pushing us forward. EFT-1 is an example of the ingrained, fundamental curiosity that makes us all tick. The desire to discover new worlds is the reason that our species has survived for so long, and it is the only reason that we will thrive in the future.

Above everything else, these advancements mean that we are still curious, we have not given up our fundamental human need to explore. The Mars One Project currently has 100,000 signatures of people who are willing to leave everything they have behind and fly to another planet with no hope of returning, simply because they believe that we are not done exploring. That means something. You don’t have to add any drama or inject any emotion or partisan politics into this issue, that is interesting enough for everyone to marvel at. All we need to do is harness a little bit of the hope behind these programs and broadcast it to everyone in a way that is engaging. That’s where the battle for the future of human spaceflight, and frankly humanity, is going to be won or lost. Not with a bigger rocket or a more advanced probe, but in the minds of the general public.
A picture of what the SLS booster assembly will look like when completed.
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