More than half of our nation’s population was born after the first great age of space exploration had peaked. In fact, during the lifetime of most Americans, no human being has traveled more than a few hundred miles from the surface of the Earth — a retreat from the Apollo-era expectations that our civilization would soon push out into space.
Forty years ago today, the lunar module Challenger left the surface of the moon carrying American astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan. One day earlier, as he left his final bootprints in the powdery gray lunar regolith, Cernan, the Apollo 17 mission commander, briefly remarked on the human significance and national challenge of traveling to space:
I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.
Unfortunately, despite Cernan’s sentiment that we would soon return, he and Schmitt were the last two human beings to visit our nearest neighbor in space. Instead, NASA spent decades traveling up and down into low-Earth orbit. All of the agency’s space shuttles are now museum pieces — that is, all except for the two, Challenger and Columbia, lost in accidents that each took seven lives. Although NASA has accomplished some truly impressive feats with unmanned robotic missions, including especially the rovers on the surface of Mars, the four decades without significant human space travel are both a proud remembrance of the great things we once could do and a frustrating reminder of what we now cannot.
Perhaps the long-term exploration and settlement of the solar system will require motivations beyond the national prestige and scientific curiosity that motivate publicly financed space travel today. A major part of these incentives will involve creating a legal framework for protecting extraterrestrial property rights, as Rand Simberg argues in his essay “Property Rights in Space” in the latest issue of The New Atlantis:
Property rights have long been considered one of the pillars of prosperity in the modern world, and their absence in space — due to the contingencies of the history of international law during the early space age — partly explains why we have not yet developed that final frontier.
If it is truly mankind’s destiny to explore the universe, then we cannot leave that task to government agencies alone. But public policy does have an important role to play in supporting the incentives necessary to encourage entrepreneurial adventurers to settle the final frontier.
— Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.