Herald-Whig View

Talk of deep-space exploration has some merit

Posted: Mar. 9, 2017 11:35 am

AMERICANS looked into deep space 50 years ago and saw it as a place worth planting a flag.

The space race galvanized the country, igniting a nationalistic fervor to beat the Russians to the moon that captured the imaginations of adults and children alike.

However, the space program has fallen off the nation's radar because of rising costs and waning public interest.

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 anywhere happened in 2011, when the space shuttle program was scrapped. Astronauts have since been hitching rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian spacecraft.

Perhaps, then, it's a sign of these resurgent nationalistic times that talk of sending people into deep space is once again in vogue.

President Donald Trump's administration has been pushing NASA to accelerate the timeline of a trip around the moon, long planned for 2021. A rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, and a capsule, Orion, would carry astronauts around the moon. The U.S., Trump said in his inaugural address, is "ready to unlock the mysteries of space."

In that, he has a like-minded ally in Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who is determined to launch a manned mission to colonize Mars in the coming years to ensure that humans become an interplanetary species.

In the meantime, Musk said Monday, his company SpaceX has taken on a high-stakes side project: ferrying two wealthy tourists to the moon and back. The weeklong 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 bring tourists to 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 years behind schedule and haven't even flown yet. Still, Musk isn't too 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."

Indeed, it's time America set its sights a little higher.

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