On Saturday, May 30 at 3:22 p.m. EST, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a SpaceX rocket, marking the first time since 2011 that astronauts have launched into space from U.S. soil. The next morning, after a 19-hour voyage closely watched across the country, Behnken and Hurley reached the International Space Station, a major success for both NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

This historic launch, coming in the middle of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, is much more than a step in the right direction for SpaceX and American corporations that dream of reaching the Moon, Mars and other planets. Space exploration has been at the center of American cultural and scientific achievement since President John F. Kennedy told Congress in 1961 that America would send a human to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. In July 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In the decades that followed Armstrong’s groundbreaking first step on the Moon, America made unprecedented progress, reaching outer space on numerous occasions and paving the way for the future of scientific discovery. But on July 8, 2011, America’s progress beyond the bounds of our planet came to a screeching halt. After Atlantis — the final voyage in NASA’s space shuttle program — blasted off, America would not see humans launched into outer space from U.S. soil until 2020, nine years later.

Many might wonder why our country suddenly stopped this remarkable innovation after over a half-century of success. After President Barack Obama took office, his administration slashed funding from NASA and its initiatives that aimed to explore the depths of our universe. According to news reports from the time, the Obama administration’s decision canceled Project Constellation and NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon by 2020. These moves quickly sparked outrage from the scientific community, when “Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, Gene Cernan, the last man on the Moon, and Jim Lovell, the hero of Apollo 13, sent an open letter condemning the cancellation of Constellation,” according to The Hill.

President Donald Trump took a different route than his predecessor in the Oval Office. Soon after his election in 2016, Trump worked to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to space exploration. And while critics question the costs of these initiatives — which are undoubtedly large at times — there’s no question that America needs to be deeply involved in exploring the universe we call home.

Space exploration is one of the greatest feats in human history, an awe-inspiring culmination of scientific thought. Space exploration is the key to answering some of the most daunting questions raised by our existence. Is there another planet like Earth out there? How large is our universe? Are humans alone?

In addition, exploring our universe and conducting research in outer space is an important step toward solving our problems on Earth. According to NASA, there are a number of benefits of doing research outside the bounds of our planet. On the International Space Station, “vaccine development research, station-generated images that assist with disaster relief and farming, and education programs that inspire future scientists, engineers and space explorers are just some examples of research benefits.” In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as countries across the world race to find a vaccine to provide immunity against the virus, the answer might rest somewhere in outer space. In a February 2012 article, NASA wrote that the International Space Station plays a role in vaccine development through microgravity-based studies.

Finally, as our nation continues to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 — along with national unrest over police brutality — progress beyond our planet is a force that can serve to unite us, even in the midst of our debates and disagreements. Space exploration is a constant, inspiring reminder of how much we can accomplish together, as one people.

Even as we continue to confront crises across the country, it is our obligation as Americans to continue an aggressive pursuit of space exploration and our long-term goals beyond Earth. While staggering costs have derailed our efforts to explore outer space in the past — and these remain valid concerns — so much remains to be discovered in the universe for the human species to benefit from. Just as Armstrong declared that it was “one giant leap for mankind” when he set foot on the surface of the Moon, this pivotal SpaceX launch was undoubtedly one giant leap for our country, as part of our endless quest for knowledge and prosperity for all.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu.


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