Looking Through Telescopes No More

I'll never forget pressing my face to the eyepiece. It was a cold Monday night and the Arizona sky was clear, black, and sparkling. The telescope wasn't anything fancy—probably a relic to an astronomer, but powerful enough for a bunch of community college students looking for a lab credit.

The moon was beautiful, still, and shadowy. But Saturn got me. The moment the ringed planet came into focus was special—like hearing The Beatles for the first time or sipping a magnificent wine, except better. I felt smaller, but more connected and curious. I can't think of another more impressive experience in my entire academic career. And I was never going to be an astronomer or physicist (I was drawn more to social sciences and music).

There is something noble, civilized, and constructive about humanity's search of the unknown, both here on Earth and (especially) in space. It can be expensive, time-consuming, and disastrous, but it's worthy of our concerted interest and efforts.

Which is why I was saddened to read this otherwise excellent article, "The dark future of American space exploration." How dark is it?

"If NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto is extended beyond 2017, the entire active human presence at the outer planets will consist of a single probe the size of a grand piano. If the mission is not extended, humanity's 43-year exploration of the outer planets will end, and humanity's horizon will shrink by about 2.5 billion miles."

That doesn't mean telescopes will disappear or that people will stop studying the universe. And, of course, there are countless terrestrial issues worthy of exploration and investment. But space exploration has a unifying element that is fundamentally good—aspire and pursue, inspire and teach, unite and learn. 

The next time I press my face against an eyepiece and see the rings of Saturn will it be with that same sense of wonder, or with sadness?