Steinman ’19: A new hope

Staff Columnist
Thursday, March 2, 2017

With last week’s groundbreaking discovery of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away, I felt a familiar feeling: the sense of exhilaration and wonder that only outer space can provide. Growing up, I was fascinated by outer space and readily answered “astronaut” whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Today I’ve adjusted those expectations slightly, but this discovery reminded me how extraordinary space exploration is and how refreshing it is to live for a while with a broadened, galactic perspective.

Of these seven planets, which orbit a star called TRAPPIST-1, three are in what is known as the “habitable zone,” or the appropriate distance from their sun to theoretically have liquid water, and perhaps even life. These planets are rocky, like Earth, but the similarities stop there. They are so close to the star that their years are between 1.5 and 13 days long, and might even be in tidal lock, the way the moon is to the Earth, with one side always facing the sun and one always away. Yet there remains a strong possibility that these planets, due to their proximity to us, will be our first good chance to find life outside the solar system, or at least to closely study other Earth-like planets. It seems likely that the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 planets will be remembered retrospectively as a milestone in exoplanet research, if not this year or next, then 40 or 50 years down the road. It’s a refreshing break from the constant barrage of anxiety-inducing news to think about a story that will have positive ramifications long beyond the next four years. If life is found on these planets, changing the way we view our entire universe, then the truly important news of 2017 might have nothing to do with President Trump.

There is a deep irony to this. The exploration of the final frontier was once a unifying force in this country. In “Hillbilly Elegy,” his bestselling memoir about growing up poor in rural America, J.D. Vance links the end of the space race era to the general feeling of isolation among working-class whites, writing, “As a culture, we had no heroes … The space program, long a source of pride, had gone the way of the dodo, and with it the celebrity astronauts. Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society.” Whatever once divided us seemed small when put on the level of light-years and astronomical units. The space race — geopolitical implications aside — was nonpartisan and attention-grabbing, simultaneously emblematic of American primacy and the achievement of humans. Awe-inspiring, perspective-shifting photographs of Earth from space reminded humanity that, no matter our differences, we are all united on a pale blue dot.

At its peak in 1966, NASA represented 4.41 percent of U.S. federal spending. By 2015 that number is estimated to have fallen almost 90 percent to 0.47 percent of the budget. Maybe there’s no truly compelling reason for the federal government to spend such exorbitant amounts on space research and travel (after all, 4.41 percent of the budget is more than we spend today on veterans, agriculture, education or transportation). But the 50-year decline of the space program has come in conjunction with an erosion of American unity and identity, and, like Vance, I am confident the two are interrelated. Every day private sector space travel comes closer and closer to becoming a reality, with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX announcing on Monday that they plan to send two tourists in orbit around the moon by next year. But while all space travel is exciting, it is considerably harder to find the same pride in a corporation’s accomplishments as it is in your own nation’s.

The TRAPPIST-1 planets, whether or not they have life or liquid water, will outlive the United States of America and all of planet Earth by about 9,995,000,000,000 years. When our sun dies, theirs will still be in its infancy. To be sure, this is depressing, but it is also one of the most compelling reasons to study the universe beyond us. In the words of Randall Munroe, the cartoonist and former NASA engineer, “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space — each discovered, studied and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.” This week’s news was a small taste of what might be out there, as long as we are motivated to keep looking.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.