Seven planets of similar size and composition as the Earth have been discovered the relatively small distance of 40 Light Years away orbiting a “cold” red dwarf star called Trappist-1. Although the slow speed of conventional propulsion systems and relativistic effects, which slow the passage of time as one’s speed increases, place these exoplanets millions of years away from our reach, this discovery kindles mankind’s fascination with alien worlds and the fantasy science of space travel that we hope might help us travel beyond Earth. In this era of ever intensifying geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the fact that people are still interested and able to explore so far beyond our own world is almost surreal.
During the Cold War, space exploration for the sake of science and human curiosity helped transform the potential for war into a competition to push beyond the limits of human potential. Unfortunately, the global culture of today is vastly different from what it was during the Cold War. Our egocentric, shorted-sighted, competition-obsessed culture and inability to see beyond the cost-benefit analysis of every situation have suppressed the motivating power of imagination and the human yearning for exploration. Where the discover of alien words, and the coverage of these discoveries, still sparks widespread curiously, the burning drive to reach beyond our own world is growing cold. We are so consumed by the pettiness of political gossip and power struggles that we ignore the possibilities.
Certainly, the world loves technology, but it is a love for gadgets and commodity electronics that entertain us or make it more convenient to stay in our comfort zones. Today, a couple of tweaks on the latest iphone or ipad, i.e. the iphone biggie-sized, qualify as revolutionary innovations. This may help US President Donald Trump deliver some of his infamous tweets and provide his detractors with a never ending stream of ammunition, but it does little for mankind. In yesteryears, NASA had to land on the Moon in order to follow up Russia’s mounting achievements. There are, of course, companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX that are working to reduce the cost of low-orbit space travel, but they are struggling to replicate what NASA has already done. Unfortunately, NASA must still rely on Russia and other countries in order to reach the International Space Station. Clearly, it is far from the trailblazing agency it once was.
New Horizons’ trip to Pluto and Rosetta’s landing on a comet were exciting novelties, but they consign mankind to the role of observer. In many respects, we are stagnating just beyond the age of the telescope. The race to surpass the 1959 accomplishment of Apollo 11 has long been derailed, which means the ability to observe Pluto will never translate into the ability to visit Pluto, unless we make discovery a priority. Preoccupied with debt, national security, and social welfare, the US government reluctantly gives NASA around $18 billion dollars a year to keep doing what it has been doing for decades. Sadly, NASA sees one of the largest shares of government spending on the sciences, outside of defense. Beyond the lack of public support for the sciences, private industry is only interested in research and innovation that can be demonstrated to safe money or create wealth.
Where the US-Soviet conflict over economic ideology motivated the world to turn outward, our preoccupation with crises and issues at home prevent us from moving beyond the pettiness of our own problems and power struggles to unite the world in the pursuit of a greater cause. Today, major world powers can barely unite to prevent Iran from rediscovering the means of creating a nuclear weapon. For Iran’s part, it is one of many nations so concerned with reinventing the wheel that it cannot see what is beyond the hazardous nuclear age. We cannot even unite or innovate enough to re-engineer our economies in the face of climate change. In short, there is a lot of excitement about scientific discoveries like the discovery of seven potentially hospitable planets in a nearby star system, but that excitement needs to translate into a cultural shift . If not, these discoveries will be wasted and grow increasingly rare.
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