Although this was definitely not my plan, it seems fitting that the first, last and only posts of this month have a Star Trek component. As the passing of Leonard Nimoy is being commented upon by people the world over including statements by President Obama and Charlie Bolden – leaders of the US space program, I am reflecting on the juxtaposition of art and science. On the one hand, in the modern mythology of Star Trek, Vulcans observing the “real” first manmade artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, crash in a fictional town in Pennsylvania. In the “real” world town of Lakehurst, NJ a few years later, a ground station at the naval base relayed the first live two-way telephone call between heads of state via geosynchronous satellite Syncom II to President Kennedy. On the other end of the call, via the US Kingsport docked in Lagos Harbor was the Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa. In a brilliant essay entitled The Race for Space written sometime in late 1957 but unpublished until 1993, Duke Ellington articulates how racial issues were holding America back in the space race. Pointing out the lack of educational and employment opportunities in the fields needed to compete The Duke said
“Everybody has to get in the game if we are playing to win”
America won, but barely and then stumbled. In 1958 Ellington named his band The Spacemen one of the first in the lineage Big K.R.I.T recognizes in this Rolling Stones interview from Nov of 2014, African-American musicians were not only tuned into outer space, but saw themselves as intellectually and creatively capable of contributing to the US space effort. Now we’re in a new race for space with an African-American in charge of NASA but no companies like Space X or Virgin Galactic. Dr. Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist at NASA puts it this way:
“When you have problems like trying to get humans down onto the surface of Mars, if you don’t have all the best minds in the world — not just white men — then you’re not utilizing humanity the way you should.”
Even though the benefits of the space program have been well documented, some people still don’t see why we should care(let alone spend money on) space. There’s one simple reason why every human should care about space. It’s home! Someone might say that our home is here on Earth, but Earth is a planet orbiting a star in space. Space is also a repository of vast material resources and has proven economic value. Contemporary astronauts speak about the transforming impact of seeing Earth from orbit – something called the Overview Effect. At least 6000 years ago on what is now the Nubian desert, ancient astronomers at Nabta Playa were charting the stars.