Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, one of the last of the Von Braun team of rocket scientists who came to America from Germany at the end of World War II, has died at the age of 94. He left this world even as the latest NASA space probe successfully landed on Mars; and yet, Dr. Stuhlinger’s legacy includes the invention of ion propulsion engines, a means of transport which made it technically feasible for humans to travel to Mars themselves — an invention made nearly 40 years ago.
So much of what is still science fiction should, by all rights, be science fact by now. Especially when it comes to space exploration. There are plenty of reasons why the space program stalled in low Earth orbit in the early 1970s, reasons which are explained and debated by people far better informed and experienced in the subject than I am, and I would encourage you to seek these out. One of the most enduring arguments on the subject follows the theme “Why should we spend money on space when there are so many problems here on Earth?”
It’s a valid question, one which has been posed for a long time. In a posting at the excellent NASA Watch blog, Keith Cowing reproduces a letter written by Dr. Stuhlinger sometime in 1970 or 1971, answering the question in great, careful, thoughtful and thought provoking detail.
Dr. Stuhlinger enclosed a copy of the famous picture shown above with his letter. He said of it:
The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968. Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space. Never before did so many people recognize how limited our earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance. Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation. It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.
We didn’t send humans to Mars in Dr. Stuhlinger’s lifetime. If more people heed his words, we might just get lucky … and send them in mine.