Nick Autiello, Columnist
Ideology: Moderate Republican | Writing from: 30,000 feet

Infinity. It just may be the most profound and motivating concept in all of human history. As I look out the window of the plane I’m currently on, Earth is obscured by clouds. I can only see upwards toward a universe with no end. For millennia, our quest for the unending and the limitless has driven our greatest, and at times our most terrible, achievements. Its heavenly manifestation is God; that omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent being who has no beginning and no end. Its earthly manifestation is man’s search for worldly immortality; civilizations that build grand monuments, ideas passed down through the ages. And the combination of these two things can’t be avoided either. The two largest religions on earth, Christianity and Islam, preach that life on Earth is just one part of an immortal spiritual life. In the twentieth century, man’s search for the limitless drove both the horror of Hitler’s quest for the perfect race and an ever expanding empire, and the glory of the American moonshot.

Today marks a sad day in that quest for infinity. I made it off my flight from Washington to Detroit in just enough time to see the countdown to Atlantis’ final launch begin. I’ll admit, I was a little corny and played the Apollo 13 soundtrack on my iPod as the clocked neared zero. Having seen shuttles lift off before from differing vantage points in Florida, I knew what was coming. The sparks began to fly; the fuel cap from the main engine was pulled away. The engines began to roar as gas was released. The sparks caught, the engine was ignited. A brief pause as thrust was built. Liftoff, and then come the chills. The chills that come from watching a group of human beings hurtling away from earth at supersonic speeds. If that doesn’t inspire you to believe anything is possible, then nothing will.

The loss of the shuttle program is a tragedy enough. It’s also ironic that it also marks the end of a lot of very high-tech jobs in Central Florida right after the realize of a dismal jobs report. We now need to rely on Russia to get into space. China is going right ahead with their own plans for a manned mission to space and who knows what else. Does NASA cost money? Sure. Is the US running a little low on cash? Yeah. But at about $9 billion a year, cutting space funding follows the same faulty logic as cutting foreign aid. It’s barely a drop in the bucket and does nothing to solve our real financial problems. And whereas foreign aid has a history of providing us with such excellent friends such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the tangible benefits of space research are felt everyday. Space exploration and research has brought back to Earth all manner of material benefits. Everything from Tempurpedic mattresses to home insulation, smoke detectors to making oil spills easier to clean up. Our technology-driven world is dependent on the network of outer space satellites. Even piglets get to share in the fun: space research has provided farmers with robotic mother pigs that don’t suffocate their babies to death like live ones have a tendency to do (I’m not making this up).

Geopolitically, whether you like it or not, space is the next battleground. The military’s space branch, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space run’s our space defenses with the mission “to ensure our freedom of action in space, while preventing adversary use of space against us.” This is only going to become more relevant in the coming decades. Given humanity’s track record, we won’t be heeding President Kennedy’s admonition that “ that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.” I don’t think China is much interested in that line of thinking. So our strategy for space should remain unchanged from that time as well, “that we shall not see space governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”

Herein lies the true tragedy of today’s launch: that there is no civilian space project to claim its mantle. I’ve written on this site before that we should be going full speed toward Mars. I’ll repeat that belief here. It’s true that we have so many problems here on Earth that need our immediate attention, there’s no denying that. But those things are the stuff of the negative side of infinity, problems and depression with no end in sight. If we are to solve our problems here on Earth, then I submit that we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves and once again turn our gaze skyward. When I land in Montana tonight, I’ll have a view of the night sky most of you reading this will lack. I can only pray that in my life time we learn more about what’s in that sky than we know now. Only then will our noble quest carry on.