Four ape-like creatures sat at the base of a tree in their rainforest habitat. They ate bananas, scratched their hindquarters, picked bugs out of one another’s hair and worried very little about the pressures of survival. Life was simple.
But one day while they were foraging, looking for something small to snack on, they noticed a bright light emanating from the edge of the forest. Curiosity ablaze, they cautiously approached the border where the open frontier met the woods. The creatures looked at each other hesitantly. Afraid of the illuminated unknown, the four retreated back into the woods. However, one creature, whom we will call Walt, walked back into the woods with his head turned over his shoulder, unable to shake the thought that there was a world beyond the forest.
Walt carried this tension with him for no more than five seconds, and he let it all out in one swift outburst. He turned around, ran toward the border and burst through the clearing like a cannonball. Farther and farther Walt ran into the illuminated unknown, alone, unafraid and hungry for knowledge.
Walt was fearless, Walt was bold and Walt had spirit to boldly go where no ape had gone before. Walt, if you haven’t figured it out, dear reader, is named after Walt Whitman, an American frontiersman and poet who famously wrote “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman captured the true spirit of an American classic — you know, the one that doesn’t back down from challenges, seeks to understand mysteries and builds bridges instead of walls.
For many of us growing up, that spirit was embodied by cowboys and gold rushers who headed over to the Wild West of California. Some feel the pioneers who bravely traversed the frontier to get to Oregon represented this ideal best. Personally, California always meant vegan kale burgers, and we could never make it to Oregon because we always died of dysentery on the trail. So, for the rest of us, space is that Final Frontier.
President Barack Obama published an article on CNN’s website Tuesday explaining some extraterrestrial discoveries we’ve made since he’s taken office. The list is impressive and includes the discoveries of flowing water on Mars and ice on one of Jupiter’s moons. Both are massive steps forward in our understanding of life here and the fantastical possibility of life elsewhere.
He also announced that in the very near future, NASA will be cooperating with private companies to build “new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.” Moreover, he expressed the possibility of placing one of these habitats on Mars, effectively colonizing it.
Flashback to the moon landing: This was perhaps one of the most unifying endeavors ever undertaken by man. Every American, regardless of background, thought it was nothing short of miraculous when we first set foot on the glowing ball of cheese. Politicians on both sides of the aisle reached over and expressed their amazement and pride that, together, American innovation, American spirit and American drive fueled one of the greatest scientific projects in the history of our species. It is, in fact, marvelous, and it ought to be recognized as such.
Years ago, we rallied around the flag on the moon. Now, it’s time for us to rally around the flag we want to put on Mars. In times when science, technology, engineering and mathematics academia has become almost fetishized, and in times when our education system as a whole has come to a slow march, a Space Race of our own generation could be the spark that ignites our nation’s fading spirit.
As Americans, it is not only our ability, but also our duty to explore the unknown. It’s as much a part of us as eating apple pie on the trail while reading frontier poetry was. Like Walt, we move forward, never backward, from the comfortable shade of our forest into the glowing pastures of truth.