When I was probably around 11 years old, my family stopped by Cape Canaveral on a vacation. At that time, which just preceded the inception of the Space Shuttle program, the mighty legacy of the Apollo program still lingered over the place. Human beings venturing onto other worlds, braving the void: this was the stuff of science fiction and, then, science fact. I understand the financial limitations of space endeavors, given all we face on earth, but neither the Space Shuttle program nor the robotic probes to distant planets vies with human exploration in terms of what really inspires us.
I cannot recommend too highly In the Shadow of the Moon, last year's superb documentary on the original moon landing. Featuring many of the early astronauts (excepting, notably, Neil Armstrong), it conveys the incredible wonder--and barely acknowledged terror--of those first forays into the universe. It is hard to know how that compared with other epochs of human exploration. Countless explorers have ventured across land and sea, at times when failure and death were real possibilities, but all earthly wildernesses feel like home compared with space. The void is emphatically not the natural place for us, lacking everything in which we evolved as animals.
Some have wondered about the psychological impact upon prospective astronauts to Mars as the earth ceases to be visible world in space and shrinks to merely another, if faintly blue, "star" in a black sky. This perspective is routine in science fiction, but perhaps nothing is more easily written than done. Costs and technical challenges limit manned (or womanned) space exploration, of course, and astronauts have obviously and notoriously been lost before, but perhaps the risk of human beings dying, not in fiery explosions which are bad enough, but freezing or suffocating on a cold, dark world beyond recourse, also gives one pause.
This post has taken a gloomy turn, when I intended the opposite. I know: Barack Obama will revive NASA and perhaps SETI as well! Yes we can! Millions of years from now some alien intelligence, intercepting our broadcasts across the deeps of space, will reach 2008 and wonder, "Wow, who was that guy, and why did everyone love him so much?" His (alien) Republican neighbor will mutter, "Just another liberal."