Exploring new horizons has never been easy. Throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of human history, people have been adventurers; some willingly and others forced by circumstances have taken great risks while seeking new prospects or places to live. Some paid for their journey of discovery with their lives, while others succeeded without incurring harm. Without these pioneers, our horizon would extend no farther than our legs are able to carry us in the course of a day.
Nowadays, we no longer set out in dugout canoes to paddle along the coastline until someone dares to build a larger ship and set sail beyond the horizon.
Or do we?
The International Space Station that I currently call home is precisely this kind of canoe, constructed in a fascinating act of international cooperation by over 100,000 people from many different nations. It flies 400 kilometres above our heads, outside Earth’s atmosphere – but if we consider a globe for scale, it is only about the width of a finger away from our home planet. It will never fly further away – it was not designed to do so. Just once before, more than 40 years ago, we humans sent a handful of our compatriots a little further afield, to the next ‘island’. But then our courage deserted us.
If we’re lucky, this canoe will drift along ‘our coast’ for a few more years, serving as a research laboratory and vantage point from which we can peer towards the ‘horizon’. Only in this way can we learn how to build a ship that will take us farther away. This joint project is of such immense importance to us that it remains sacrosanct, even in times of international tension. In fact, by letting us get a glimpse of all we could lose through conflict, it helps to bind us together.
The next 10 years will pass much faster than we expect. A few of us have started to take the knowledge we have acquired on board our ‘canoe’ and are using it to build a vessel that could someday carry us beyond the ‘horizon’, to the Moon and on to Mars. We might learn whether we have siblings out there in the Universe, as well as how we could spare Earth the fate of becoming a barren planet.
It will require a conscious decision, taken together as inhabitants of planet Earth, to take a ship where no one has gone before, beyond the ‘horizon’, to reach out and explore new worlds. The clock is ticking. Engineers will be looking for new challenges when the International Space Station project comes to an end and, without further work for them, their valuable knowledge will be lost.
Venturing out toward new cosmic horizons would be the greatest adventure humanity has ever faced. Let’s not miss the boat!