Pluto was discovered in 1930, but it was not until the New Horizons spacecraft passed by the dwarf planet that the human race got its first glance of this new world. 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 Pluto still sparks curiously, the burning drive to reach beyond our own world is growing cold.
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. In yesteryears, NASA had to land on the Moon in order to follow up Russia’s mounting achievements.
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.
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 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.
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.
July, 17th marks the first anniversary of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists. The deaths of 298, whose aircraft was mistaken for a military target, and thousands of others in Ukraine died, because Russian President Vladimir Putin choose to start a power struggle when the Ukrainian People dissented from what he wanted.
Where Putin’s choices have put a wedge between nations fighting to thwart globalized terrorist threats like the Islamic State, terrorists are so interested in their own desires that they undermine the advancement of all mankind. On the economic front, the concentration of wealth into the hands of the few, who spend their wealth on themselves instead of social goods, stifles the innovation and exploration that enriches the world.
In short, there is a lot of excitement about scientific discoveries like the new photos of Pluto, but that excitement needs to translate into a cultural shift or these discoveries will grow increasingly rare.
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