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Our Editorial: Why we explore

The Detroit News

Until last week, Pluto had been a distant dot in the sky, far out on the edge of the universe and so small and remote that it had lost its full status as a planet. But now, as the first images from the New Horizons translunar mission stream back to Earth, we are getting up close and personal with Pluto and are quickly learning answers to questions that are centuries old.

For example, we now know that Pluto is the largest dwarf planet of the Kuiper Belt, the murky region of the solar system beyond the planets, and that it has a northern ice cap of methane and nitrogen. The nitrogen is escaping into space for reasons that are not yet clear.

Big deal, skeptics might say. For that we spent nine years and $700 million to travel three billion miles?

But it’s not about the time, money or effort, even though America’s investment in space has delivered an undisputed financial return.

Most of the technological advancements of the last 50 years, including the Internet revolution, have their roots in the space program.

And the New Horizons mission will continue that pay-off. Translunar travel outside the influence of the gravity of the Earth and moon will open up research into galactic cosmic radiation, which NASA describes as the biggest impediment to human exploration of deep space. The knowledge gained could lead to medical breakthroughs and other discoveries applicable on Earth.

And the way in which New Horizons reached Pluto will help open the door to even more distant probes. The craft used the gravity of other planets to propel itself through the solar system.

This is exciting stuff, and not just for space geeks. The images and data streaming back from Pluto will provide science teachers with a rich trove of resources with which to excite their students about STEM education.

Those are the practical reasons for exploring space. But not the real ones.

We pushed to Pluto, and someday soon will push beyond because the human soul has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and space holds the answers.

NASA explains it this way on its website: “Humans are driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then push further. ... Curiosity and exploration are vital to the human spirit.”

Ever since man, in the words of the poet, slipped the surly bonds of Earth he has been propelled relentlessly by the desire to plunge further into the unknown.

The need to explore and expand boundaries is part of our national culture. It causes us to raise our heads above our present challenges and struggles and search the distant horizon for new adventure. Space exploration has reached past immediate gratification; today’s lift-offs may take a decade or more to report back with significant data. We launch those rockets into the future to fulfill the responsibility each generation has to raise the foundation of knowledge another level.

Americans can be proud that our nation has led humanity into the depths of the universe, and as the images from Pluto confirm, continues to do so.