To Infinity and Beyond
You are nothing. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at this picture. Every single speck of color is a galaxy—a cluster of billions of stars. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is just one of those specks and is still so huge that if you were travelling at 186,282 miles per second, it would take you 100,000 years to reach the other side.
And this is our sun. This is our Earth. And this is you. Nothing. In a way, it’s almost humbling to know that we really are just a microscopic spec in an infinite universe. Which also means pretty much everything we have and do is pointless and unimportant. Like the SATs or the popular vote. But what if we looked beyond our tiny planet? Maybe we’d find something out of this world.
Renowned painter and ear enthusiast Vincent Van Gogh said it best: “I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.” There’s truth in that for us all. So let’s overcome our nothingness and dare to dream a little bigger. All we have to do is look up.
Since the dawn of humanity, we have always been looking at the stars. I look at Zac Efron.
Exploring space physically became a reality in WWII. Germany launched the V-2 rocket, which became the first man-made object in space. After the war, Russia launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite in space in 1957. And America was [really mad]. Nuclear war seemed like a bad idea. So instead, they started the Space Race! The finish line? The moon.
10. NASA is created in 1958 […].
9. Belka and Strelka become the first animals to return from space on Sputnik 5.
8. Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human being in space, followed by American Alan Shepard.
7. President JFK officially announces the Space Race.
6. Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman in space in 1963. Oh, and the first American woman in space was Sally Ride, which was 20 years later.
5. Russian cosmonaut Alexsey Leonov is the first to spacewalk—quickly followed by Edward White in 1965.
4. Russia’s Luna 9 is the first spacecraft on the moon.
3. Surveyor 1 follows behind.
2. The Saturn V rocket is built, becoming the largest and most powerful rocket in the world.
1. And “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong become the first people to set foot on the moon in 1969.
And America wins!…
However, saying that just America won is unfitting. The Space Race was a win for all people—it gave the world a new perspective. Take this picture from Apollo 8 in 1968, titled Earthrise. For the very first time, we were looking at Earth without color-coded countries or borders. We were looking at Earth as a whole planet, a single environment. And suddenly, the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Earth Day are all founded in 1970. And in the 1960s, the number of Ph.D.’s earned at American universities, especially in physics, increased threefold! As a result of the research associated with space, we invented solar panels, artificial limbs, MRI and CAT scans, and long-distance communication!
Space inspired us to be engineers and scientists, and together we could break all kinds of boundaries—not just scientific, but social ones too. In the 1960s, NASA needed a bigger workforce, so it hired African-American women to work as computers. And that was where Katherine Johnson single-handedly calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Yes, an African-American woman in the 1960s was able to get a job at NASA, get the United States into space, and take rightful credit for the work she had done. She proved to young girls everywhere that their gender or race is not a limiting factor. Because, to quote the movie Hidden Figures, at NASA, “we all pee the same color.”
That is the power of space. Up there, our color, creed, or class doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is completing the mission—achieving the dream.
But with great dreams comes great sacrifice. In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded within 73 seconds of liftoff—killing seven astronauts inside. Then in 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia malfunctioned and disintegrated, along with seven more. And suddenly we doubted the value of space exploration. In 2011, the Space Shuttle Program ended. The question became, “Why should we invest in space when there are so many other problems down here?”
But we need to realize that the real problem is whether or not we want to invest in our curiosity. Because we can afford NASA—it’s only 0.5% of the federal budget, which is half a penny on a tax dollar. Investing in space brings technology, it makes advances in science, it breeds heroes. Most importantly, space inspires us to dream about a brighter future. That’s priceless. Quitting space exploration would mean these heroes died for nothing.
So we can’t quit. We still have so much more to learn and be curious about. One recent discovery happened in 2016—the detection of gravitational waves. To study space, scientists traditionally use varying types of light. Gravitational waves are a like a new sense, allowing us to see parts of the universe that would otherwise be invisible, like black holes. Scientists compare the potential of gravitational waves to a blind person gaining the ability to see.
On top of that, we have people like Elon Musk. He founded the private space company, SpaceX, with the ultimate goal of allowing people to live on Mars. Recently, SpaceX obtained a contract with NASA to send people into space […], something they’ve never done before. Essentially, Musk is reviving the spirit of exploration.
A new space age is beginning. And we get to play a part in that. There’s a reason why we say to shoot for the moon or as esteemed scientist Stephen Hawking put it, “look…at the stars and not down at your feet.” Because maybe down here, we really are nothing, just some tiny people sitting on a tiny rock. But what gives our lives value is our dreams. We should make life-changing technology, we should break social barriers, we should “boldly go where no man has gone before!” But we have to keep dreaming! And there’s only one thing we have to do to get started. We just need to look up.