The Beckoning Heavens

The stars have always called us, but only for the past forty years or so have we been able to respond. First, people went one by one, and then in groups of two, three, or more. First, space was the province of white male test pilots, but today space draws men and women with many different backgrounds, from many different lands. First, people went for hours, then days, and now for weeks and months. Some day we will go there to stay.

Space has been the province of the selected few: as of the year 2000, only about four hundred people had flown there. Yet, for each person who visits space, many more stand ready. Thousands respond to each call for astronauts, and for every one who applies to become a space-farer, there must be scores who dream about visiting space.

At present, space travel is extremely expensive. According to one recent estimate, it costs approximately ten thousand dollars to put one pound in low Earth orbit using the space shuttle, and about four thousand dollars to put a pound in orbit using conventional rockets.3 For the spacefarers themselves, the risks and personal costs are high. People who want to become spacefarers must pass stiff competitions and undergo extensive training. They may have to master a difficult foreign language and culture before they can participate in an international mission. It may be years, if ever, before they are assigned a flight. In the course of their careers, between training, flight, and public relations tours, they are rarely home with their families.

By normal terrestrial standards, life in space is extremely dangerous. To leave Earth's gravity, spacefarers ride atop tons of burning materials, and they perhaps undertake difficult docking maneuvers when reaching their destinations. Typically, today's spacefarers live in noisy, cramped conditions and forego most of the amenities that are regularly available on Earth. There, they maintain difficult and relentless work schedules, perhaps for months at a time.

Why is it, then, that so many people are willing to meet the challenge? This is particularly intriguing in that the next generation of spacefarers, like previous generations, will consist of bright, educated people who would be assured a secure, comfortable, and prosperous existence on Earth. And why are societies sometimes willing to devote enormous amounts of resources to spaceflight (during the 1960s the United States devoted up to 5 percent of its annual budget to spaceflight)?4 Space advocates argue that we go to space to learn, to tap resources and develop wealth, and to grow and prosper as individuals and as a species.

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