"Space – the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."

Every Star Trek episode began with this lofty mission statement and usually ended in some sort of hand-to-hand combat between Captain Kirk and whoever had captured McCoy and Spock that week. Then Scottie would get the transporter up and running and beam the three explorers off the surface of the planet a split second before the cavern collapsed.

While you can question the execution of Star Trek, you never really question the idea of deep space exploration somewhere in our future. Given mankind’s drive to climb mountains, dive oceans, and blaze trails into every unknown, blasting off into the cosmos is a natural next step – the only matter up for debate is just how far we’ll get. We’ve already put people on the moon and in space stations, and some PhD holders with billion-dollar budgets are dead serious about a manned trip to Mars in the near future. And if we can’t break the laws of physics, some scientists are suggesting ways they could be bent.

Some critics say that space exploration is a futile enterprise that only robs money and scientific resources from more important causes in the interest of social welfare and education – and they have a point; landing on a strange world with similar atmosphere and intelligent life (whether intelligent life exists or not) is a physical impossibility, at least by our current understanding of matter and energy.

Even if we could somehow engineer a spacecraft capable of travelling the speed of light (and that in itself is contrary to a few laws of physics), it would still take thousands of years to reach any one of the 78 planets astronomers have discovered in recent years.

Yet scientists have not given up. If there is water on Mars, we could conceivably colonize the planet – the question of whether we should never seems to come up. If it’s even remotely possible, it’s a good bet that we will attempt, for bragging rights (thinly disguised as science) or for a more sinister reason – one interesting conspiracy theory is that hidden proof of extraterrestrial intelligence and the need to defend ourselves against it was the catalyst that drove the cold war and space race. In other words, the government knows something about space that we don’t.

The more rational explanation is that we are naturally curious and impulsively driven to seek out new challenges. Life is, after all, an adventure.

The final frontier is a big place. You might want to pack a lunch.


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