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Why We Must Keep Reaching For The Stars

Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin — lunar module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission — walks on the moon in July 1969.
Neil A. Armstrong
Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin — lunar module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission — walks on the moon in July 1969.

Field Log, Imperial Archeological Expedition IV-V, May 21, 2750 CE: Spent the better part of the day bringing artifacts up from the mud-caves. It's hard to believe what we are finding. It's impossible really. Lifan-Alfred says she has deciphered a good portion of the documents. They speak of rockets and journeys into space. There are even detailed accounts of trips to the moon, seven of them! Some of the technology described in the documents matches closely with the artifacts we are finding. These stories, they could be true. We are on the verge of these kinds of capabilities now ourselves. And if they are true then the real question is why?

Why did they stop?

This week marks the passing of two heroic milestones, each one carrying a whiff of sadness with it. Yesterday Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, died at far too early an age. Ride was 61 and a tireless advocate for space exploration, as well as women's role in science, technology and education.

Last Friday, the 43rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing came and went without much fanfare.

With each passing year it gets harder to imagine that we once walked on the moon. For my kids the Apollo moon program might as well be World War II or the era of Chicago gangsters. It's history, pure and simple. Even Sally Ride's ground-breaking flight occurred three decades ago, in an era when a space shuttle launch was a big deal. Now, of course, even the shuttle program is history.

A few days ago I was talking to a young researcher who has begun work in the industrial archeology of space flight. He was doing work on nuclear rocket test sites from the 1950s. It's remarkable, he told me, how much information is already lost from these projects. You might think everything was carefully documented in books and monographs. The reality, however, is much messier. Capabilities and competence fade once programs get shut down. It's a stark reminder of the strange territory we find ourselves in relative to the high frontier of space.

We are crossing a gap now. We have no national launch capacity for sending humans into space. That absence serves as a metaphor for the national space program as a whole. The administration's decision to help build a private space enterprise is absolutely the right way to go, as is its intention to redirect our long-term efforts to deep-space missions like Mars exploration and trips to the asteroids. But both of these decisions only make sense if the gap in manned-flight capability is crossed quickly.

There should be a sense of urgency about getting these new space ventures up and running because we can forget. Left long enough to inertia, we will forget. If we cannot find the will to follow our heros into space, then Armstrong and Ride could become nothing more dusty names in dusty stories.

Some great-great grandchild of ours might say to their own kids, "Yes, they say we traveled in space once. But that was a long time ago."

Soon enough it could simply be forgotten, a topic not for engineers but for archeologists.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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