Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. —H.G. Wells
Today is the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s launch into space, and I am reflecting that our exploration of space — our attempts to see it, understand it and actually go out in it — is the most optimistic thing we do as human beings.
Each time we look to the stars and try to touch them in some way — by learning their history, by understanding them better, by actually flying out into our solar system (and one day, maybe, to another star) — we are affirming that we have a long future ahead of us. We are building the pool of knowledge that our descendants will use to explore farther and know more than we thought possible. While acknowledging that we are but a tiny part of the galaxy, we know that we are an integral part of it, that it is our home.
In its 20 years orbiting above us, Hubble has sent back amazing images of distant galaxies and of the Shoemaker-Levy comet impacting Jupiter. Hubble provided evidence of black holes at the centers of galaxies and of extrasolar planets. The Hubble deep field images show us galaxies billions of light years away and let us literally look back in time to the early universe.
Meanwhile, the Solar Dynamics Observatory has just started sending back amazing images of our own sun. The Solar Dynamics Observatory is billed as the Hubble of heliophysics, the most advanced spacecraft ever built to study the sun. Scientists will use it to better understand our sun and how it affects our own planet.
Looking ahead, President Obama has proposed a trip to an asteroid in lieu of returning to the moon. This is an exciting idea that could really inspire imaginations. In addition, the trip has many practical goals. Figuring this out and actually doing it would be an important first step in making the journey to Mars. It would also be good to know in case we detect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth that we need to divert. Finally, it would greatly advance scientific knowledge as well as possibly open a new area of natural resources. We need these kinds of visionary, imaginative goals — the stuff of science fiction — to keep us looking to the future, to keep us optimistic.