People of a certain age remember, often quite vividly, when Americans looked into the night sky and saw deep space as a place worth exploring. The space race united the nation. It was glamorous. It was dangerous. It was important that we beat the Russians to the moon.
Adults and children alike were fully engrossed and the byproducts were cool, too. The space race gave us Tang, cordless vacuums, super-soakers and memory foam, according to therichest.com.
All that seems so old-fashioned now. Instead of being a place of excitement, space has become a parking lot for communication satellites. There hasn’t been a manned mission beyond low-Earth orbit since the final Apollo moon landing in 1972. NASA’s last manned U.S. mission was in 2011, just before the Obama administration scrapped the space shuttle program. Since then, astronauts have been hitching rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian spacecraft.
As we said, you have to be of a certain age to recall the glories of 1960s and early ’70s space travel.
Donald Trump is in that age group, which might explain his stated desire “to unlock the mysteries of space.” The Trump’s administration has been pushing NASA to accelerate the timeline of a trip around the moon, which has long been planned for 2021. The Space Launch System rocket would carry the capsule Orion and its astronauts around the moon.
In typical Trumpian fashion, our government might have a private partner or two. Or competitors. Wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and others have been competing to see who will be first to escape the planet. In fact, no fewer than six private companies are working to make space travel a private enterprise.
Richard Branson, owner of Virgin America airlines, also owns Virgin Galactic. He envisions a “spaceport” in New Mexico (near Roswell, maybe?). Another famous billionaire with interplanetary ambitions is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, owner Blue Origin. It’s all very hush-hush, but he’s said to be testing rockets capable of carrying three astronauts in Texas.
Musk said this week that his company SpaceX has taken on a high-stakes side project: ferrying two wealthy tourists to the moon and back. The week-long journey, which could happen next year, would take the unidentified pair past the lunar surface and outward before the spacecraft surrenders to the pull of gravity and heads back to Earth.
Until SpaceX, only the Russian government has agreed to take tourists into space – seven of them who have paid tens of millions of dollars to fly on Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station. The trip around the moon would be much farther.
Musk says the two would-be space tourists are “coming into this with their eyes open.” But so far, the spacecraft that would carry them – SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsule and Falcon Heavy rocket – are behind schedule and haven’t even flown yet. Musk says he isn’t worried. “This should be a really exciting mission,” he told The Associated Press, “that hopefully gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again.”
With the announcement that there are no fewer than seven Earth-like planets within a 40 light years of home, they might even have a destination in mind.
And why not? Americans love goals, we love exploration and we love winning race. Especially, perhaps, the space race.