Daring greatly

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

We have entered a historic moment in our time.

Last week, following years of discussion, investigation, training and planning, NASA announced the crew for the long-dreamed-of return trip to the moon.

The Artemis II mission, set to launch in November 2024, will be the first time since the early 70s and the Apollo era that humans will leave Earth’s low orbit and travel to our lunar compatriot. The crew will spend 10 days in lunar orbit before returning home, a mission that will pave the way for humanity to return to the moon’s surface. That future crew will then join the ranks of legendary space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the first two men on the moon, and Harrison Shmitt, the last to step foot on its surface.

Marking the event, and making it much more relevant on a national level, is the fact that a Canadian will be among the members of the Artemis II mission. In a press conference on Monday, April 3, 2023, NASA announced that Jeremy Hansen would be one of four astronauts comprising the Artemis II crew, making him the first Canadian to orbit our moon. While Canada and many Canadians have contributed to humanity’s mission to the stars, most famously the Canadarm, former Liberal MP Marc Garneau and fighter pilot/space crooner Chris Hadfield, we have never seen a Canadian in such close proximity to the moon. However, I can’t help but think that many of us have dreamed about it in our lives.

I have always been enamoured of space. I remember having dozens of different books as a child full of information, illustrated encyclopedias, and one I’m pretty sure was just called “The Big Book of Facts,” and I remember always finding myself returning to those pages that detailed space, our solar system and what lies beyond. Not content to just take in factual information about outer space and our nine major solar companions (Sol, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, yes, Pluto) I also devoured science-fiction set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The ideas of other planets, of travelling among the stars and discovering sights theretofore unseen thrilled me and filled my imagination.

But as much as I would read and watch things about space, more often than not I would simply look up at the stars at night. In those days of sodium-vapour streetlights, a technology that still evokes in me nostalgic feelings of night, the stars would come out slowly, almost shyly, and hide above us in plain sight, the warm orange-yellow glow from the streetlights blunting their most dramatic vistas. Remove yourself from town by, say, a half-hour’s drive, and look up into the night sky again, and suddenly you are confronted with more light in the sky than you could have ever dreamed possible. Hundreds, thousands, millions of points of light glitter in the dark, each one evoking wonder and mystery. Could that one be the sun to a planet like ours? Could some other being that we can’t begin to imagine be looking up at their night sky at the same time, connecting two absolutely alien entities in one shared moment? We can only look, and dream.

Space exploration has taken more of a backseat in our society than we could have expected at the outset of the Apollo program. While we sent several missions to the moon, at the end of the Apollo 17 mission, our aspirations came crashing back down to Earth. We have seen many missions sent into space, and several significant tragedies. We have watched the fall of the Mir and the rise of the ISS, two technological and scientific marvels that are no less impressive than landing people on the moon, but which lacked that same grand sense of majesty and adventure that manned flights beyond our world have accomplished in the past.

In September of 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy spoke before an assembled crowd in Houston, Texas, and echoed a speech made by President Theodore Roosevelt more than 50 years earlier about why humanity – and the U.S. in particular in those heady days of the space race – should challenge themselves to reach the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy said.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

Anything worth daring is worth daring greatly, and returning to the moon is one of humanity’s greatest dares. We have emerged victorious in our quest to reach space, but we have not conquered it, and we never will. Lives have been lost in the human pursuit of space, and could be lost again as we continue to venture out beyond our home planet. But the human push to explore and learn and reach the stars is one of our greatest achievements as a species. Space flight brings together the best and brightest of humanity, and more often than not involves people of different race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality and more. Space is our common goal, and a stellar example of our simple ape brains daring to dream beyond our reach.

Our next stop may be the moon, but it is already being used as a testing grounds of sorts for a manned mission to Mars. And this is the point in the editorial where I should bemoan the fact that we have so many issues to deal with here on terra firma; from a widening climate crisis, humanitarian disasters, people being persecuted for the colour of their skin, who they love and who they are, economic imbalance that rewards greed and destruction, and so much more. Why should we go to the moon or Mars? Won’t we just wreck them like we have our home?

But as I believe that space represents the best of us, so too do I believe that space is the best chance we have of seeing our planet for what it is; one of a kind, and in perilous danger. We only have this one home, and as the late, great Carl Sagan once wrote, “in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” I believe that pushing ourselves further into space will help to bring our place in the universe into better perspective, that on an ever widening galactic scale we are small, and simple, and special, and that the better we understand what is out there, the better we will learn to preserve and cherish our pale blue dot.

“The only home we’ve ever known.”