Next week, the United States NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission that landed man on the moon. This is how NASA describes the event: “On July 16, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida (USA) on a journey to the Moon. Four days later, while Collins orbited the Moon in the command module, Armstrong and Aldrin landed Apollo 11’s lunar module, Eagle, on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, becoming the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface.”
This is an important time for me and my family, as we celebrate the significance of STEM in general, and aeronautics and astronautics – which is sometimes simply referred to as aerospace engineering – in particular. For the past 31 years, my academic and industry research has consistently been focused on aerospace engineering. I am an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which is easily the Number One Society for aerospace professionals all over the world. I have served as an editor for several years of an AIAA journal that is considered the best on aeronautics and astronautics, and I am also currently serving as an editor of another aerospace engineering journal. One of my daughters has a couple of academic degrees in aerospace engineering, and has designed and modeled aircraft for many years. She is also a pilot. So you can imagine how exciting it is for me to be writing about space exploration.
I remember about a quarter of a century ago when I told people in Nigeria I was into aerospace engineering. The reaction was usually negative, with suggestions that we solve the problems on earth first before we care about the problems in space. Yet, aircraft take off and land daily in many airports in Nigeria. Somehow folks couldn’t seem to connect the two, or there was an implicit assumption that we let foreigners manage our air transportation, while we “upload” our foreign reserves to them in their foreign bank accounts in return for their service.
So, fifty years ago (in 1969) astronauts walked on the moon for the first time. To put things in perspective, 1969 is just 66 years after the Wright brothers, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, USA, demonstrated the first human flight. (Before then, only birds and insects flew!) Thus, Dayton, Ohio is the historic aviation city in the US, where the world’s largest Air Force base is also located. Incidentally, Dayton is my second home in the US because of the close relationship that I have maintained with the military base in that city.
You may be wondering why anybody should care about space exploration. Well, the earth on which we inhabit does not exist in isolation. It is a part of the Solar System, which in turn is a part of the universe. Note that our Solar System consists of our star – the Sun – and its orbiting planets (including Earth), along with numerous moons, asteroids, comet material, rocks, and dust. According to NASA, “Our Sun is just one star among the hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. The universe is all of the galaxies – billions of them!”
Our welfare on earth is affected by the things that happen in the space around us. The sun in particular has a life-and-death influence on the things that happen on earth. Therefore, I think it is in order for us to know a lot about the environment in which we find our planet.
For example, we should want to know if there are living things or other beings in other parts of the universe. It certainly would be of interest to know if we have cousins out there in Mars, for example. But more importantly, our survival on earth is perhaps the most crucial reason why we need to explore space. The effects of global warming are being felt all over the place. We also have an obligation to explore the seas and the oceans surrounding us in order for us to be able to explore the possibility of charting the course of the existence of mother earth. After all, you don’t want to wake up one day to find out that the earth has disappeared or crashed into another planet in the solar system. For instance, not only is global warming being manifested in higher than normal temperatures in the air; the rising ocean tides are also manifestations.
Should poor countries be concerned about space exploration, even when it appears they can’t feed themselves? The answer is an emphatic “Yes.” We all do not all have the same talents. There are students in the poorest of countries that are potentially better in the STEM fields than students in the developed worlds. Why should such students waste away? Moreover, we need diversification. Finally, no single country or group of people has a monopoly on knowledge, and it is always important to remember that no other country can solve your problem for you, when push comes to shove!