What is that?

Even though most people pay little or no attention to the night sky, it is possible to be startled by a sight that can defy explanation.  A brillant object, sometimes even brighter than Venus, can be observed moving swiftly across the heavens.  It is not always visible, and disappears for weeks at a time, but, for as long as two weeks, it can be seen at least once a day, and often twice.  The first time I saw it, it freaked me out, because I could not imagine what I was seeing.  Since then, it has grown considerably, and I have seen it when it is quite brilliant.

What am I talking about?  The International Space Station.  Our outpost in the new frontier, 280 miles above the surface of the Earth, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.  Right now, there are three people living up there, learning how to survive and be productive in an environment that is totally alien to humans.  They are the pioneers, breaking trail for the rest of us, making the first crude discoveries in the realm that we call outer space.

120 miles above our heads, no matter where we live, the Earth comes to an end, and space begins.  That is the altitude where we can orbit our home planet without immediately falling back to Earth.  That is the altitude where the atmosphere is so thin that it is hardly more than a good vacuum.  Earth is a speck of dust, hurtling through the emptiness, as it goes around and around the star that we call the Sun.  No where in all that we can see is there any place like Earth, although some people want to believe that Mars could be made into another planet where we could walk unprotected under the open sky.  If such a thing is to happen, it will be long after anyone alive now has passed on.

Most of what is out there is emptiness, bathed in powerful radiation, with no noticable gravity.  A hostile realm, where temperatures of 450 degrees exist only inches away from minus 250 degrees.  Whatever is in the sun gets hot very quickly, while whatever is in the shade loses it heat very quickly.  Practically limitless energy is there for the taking, as well as mineral resources that we use here on Earth.  Everything that we have here exists out there, except a gentle environment.  That we have to create ourselves.  Learning how to do so reliably is one of the goals of the multi-national program that maintains the ISS.

Hopefully, we will learn how to master this new frontier before we use up or destroy the only home that we have, the planet Earth.  For the resources of the Earth are finite, limited.  As more and more people enjoy a higher standard of living, the planet suffers greater and greater wounds.  Soon, there will be 9 billion of us here on Earth, competing for a slice of a pie that is getting no bigger.  Unless we begin to expand our sphere of activities off planet, that pie is doomed to shrink, not grow larger.

This is why the ISS is so important, because there the first steps are being taken to teach us how to live on other worlds, or in the vast emptiness between those worlds.  The only way that we can protect our home while still enjoying a standard of living like the one we do know is to expand beyond the confines of this one world, and begin using the resources of our Solar System.  Everything that we will need for any conceivable length of time exists out there, waiting for someome to come along and pick it up.


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