The city of Greensboro can claim significant ties to space exploration:
The late shuttle astronaut Ron McNair, an N.C. A&T graduate whose life was cut tragically short in the Challenger explosion in 1986.
The experimental A&T student payloads that have accompanied some shuttle missions, including a mini laboratory aboard the Endeavour.
UNCG alumna Virginia Tucker, who in 1935 was one of the first five female mathematicians who pioneered the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory “human computer” pool featured in the movie “Hidden Figures.”
But you don’t need a special connection to NASA to feel some sense of pride and accomplishment in yet another milestone in the U.S. space program. The SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., Sunday to become the first water landing for astronauts since the Apollo-Soyuz mission on July 24, 1975 — 45 years ago. Two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, rode the capsule to the International Space Station back in May, in itself a historic event. It was the first time a private company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, delivered human beings into Earth orbit.
NASA developed the space shuttle to carry astronauts to the space station beginning in 1981, but the program ended in 2011. Since then, we’ve relied on Russia to taxi our astronauts back and forth — until now. Space flight calls for international cooperation, but there’s something to be said for being able to launch and land our own ships. There’s also something to be said for private industry’s involvement. Companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have been able to reduce the cost of space travel while advancing innovation. The Bush and Obama administrations promoted such partnerships, as has President Trump, who supports NASA’s plans to return to the moon by 2024.
Space exploration has captured the imaginations of many, and could lead to scientific discoveries that might help solve Earth’s problems. Speaking of Earth’s problems, the crew of the ship that recovered the astronauts in the Gulf of Mexico, including doctors and nurses, had to be tested for coronavirus and quarantined for two weeks before the astronauts returned. And the capsule had to be routed to avoid contact with rough waters generated by Tropical Storm Isaias. The astronauts may wish they’d stayed in space.
Another SpaceX crew could return to the space station as early as next month, but SpaceX has other ambitions. It’s also among companies developing a space tourism industry. And Musk has long expressed his desire to send people to Mars.
It’s mildly amusing today to watch “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which predicted that there would be routine space flight and orbiting hotels and a moon base, oh, about 20 years before now. The future isn’t what it used to be.
Space itself still holds many challenges for would-be explorers. But they’re challenges we understand better now, thanks to the efforts and investments of both private companies and NASA. Some think we need to solve more of our earthly problems before we shoot for the stars. But our daily struggles didn’t stop the Apollo astronauts, nor did they stop SpaceX.
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