The Future of Human Space Flight

I had the awesome privilege of sitting in today at the Augustine Commission — also known as the Human Space Flight Committee — which was commissioned by the President to “conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human space flight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight – one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable.”

This was awesome for several reasons. One, I believe it’s a historical event and therefore neat to witness. It’s historical because it may play such a large role in the future. Something that I knew going into it but that was even more evident afterward is that what comes out of this commission has the potential to affect the future of the entire world. That may sound like a superfluous or overblown claim, but having been there today, it is evident that what this commission says may determine or at least impact whether or not Americans ever go back to the moon, try to go to Mars, do science on the space station, and so on. It is hard for me to convey, but yeah, those decisions can make a big difference in the world as we know it. The ironic thing is that three years ago (before coming to NASA) I couldn’t have cared less and most people in my “circles” are quite the same way. But to be there today and hear from people who do care — and care a lot — made an impression.

Today was awesome also because it makes what I do have more meaning. It’s so easy to sit in my cubicle and forget the big picture. I’ll be honest, a lot of it was over my head — discussions of metric tons and budgets and chemical v. nuclear fuels. But what wasn’t over my head was the sincerity of the people who spoke, both those who stand firmly behind NASA’s current direction and those who question it.

The director of the NASA center where I work read several statements from young people about why they believe in human space flight. One statement he read identified two reasons for human space flight: curiosity and concern for our future. Those are both very good reasons and ones I’ve heard before. And while they may accurately explain why so many are interested in space, the  moon, Mars, etc., they also accurately explain how it is that I don’t feel drawn to those places. I have curiosities but they are much smaller in scope. There is so much here, on Earth — even here where I’m at, not just physical location, but just where I’m at in life — that I don’t know, that it feels as if I do not have the mental capacity to go beyond those bounds. My curiosity is limited and I’m quite content in that self-made comfort zone.

The second point — concern for our future — is another one I can’t wrap my brain around. I mean I do not wish Earth ill, but my faith plays such a strong role in that and what I believe about “end times” that it never occurred to me (before coming to NASA) for humans to try to leave Earth and start over or hide out somewhere else. If the sun explodes or a comet strikes Earth killing everyone and/or making Earth unliveable, well, that’s ok because I know where I’ll be. But who am I to say that it’s not part of the “master plan” for humans to visit or relocate to other planets? As someone once explained it to me, the desire to explore is innate to humans. What if people had never crossed the Atlantic Ocean to “discover” the Americas? The parallels between the early explorers on Earth and the desire to explore other planets is quite interesting and one I didn’t realize on my own. But yeah, they had to take everything with them and it was risky but the end result was discovering a new place for people to live. Is that the end result of space missions to other planets? I don’t know but it doesn’t seem bad to try.

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