Space exploration has always been the province of dreamers: The human imagination readily soars where human ingenuity struggles to follow. A Voyage to the Moon—a satirical account of a space voyage, often cited as the first science fiction story—was written by the real Cyrano de Bergerac in 1649, just 40 years after Galileo’s first telescopic observations of the moon. Cyrano was dead and buried for a good three centuries before the first manned rockets started to fly.
In 1961, when President Kennedy declared that the United States would send a man to the moon by the decade’s end, those words, too, had a dreamlike quality. They resonated with optimism and ambition in much the same way as the most famous dream speech of all, delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. two years later. By the end of the decade, both visions had yielded concrete results and transformed American society. And yet in many ways the two dreams ended up at odds with each other. The fight for racial and economic equality is intensely pragmatic and immediate in its impact. The urge to explore space is almost quintessentially the opposite. It is figuratively and literally otherworldly in its aims.
When the dust settled, the space dreamers lost out. There was no grand follow-up to the Apollo missions. The technologically compromised space shuttle program has just come to an end, with no successor. Looking ahead, NASA has no plans for a next-generation mission to study Earth-like planets around other stars, the most exciting astronomical discovery of the past decade if not the past half-century. The perpetual argument is that funds are tight, that we have more pressing problems here on Earth. Amid the current, quite serious concerns about the federal deficit, reaching toward the stars seems a dispensable luxury—as if saving one-tenth of 1 percent of a single year’s budget would solve our problems.
But human ingenuity struggles on. NASA is developing a series of mind-boggling robotic probes that will get the most bang from a buck. They will serve as modern Magellans, mapping out the solar system for whatever explorers follow, whether man or machine. On the flip side, Virgin Galactic and a few competitors are plotting a bottom-up assault on the space dream by making it a tangible reality to the public. Private spaceflight could lie within reach of rich civilians in a few years. Another decade or two and it could go mainstream.
The space dreamers end up benefiting all of us—not just because of the way they expand human knowledge, and not just because of the spin-off technologies they produce, but because the two types of dreams feed off each other. Both mlk and jfk appealed to the idea that humans can transcend what were once considered inherent limitations. Today we face seeming challenges in energy, the environment, health care. Tomorrow we will transcend these as well, and the dreamers will deserve a lot of the credit. The more evidence we collect that our species is capable of greatness, the more we will actually achieve it.