Several weeks ago, I saw my first space shuttle launch. STS-125 majestically rose to the heavens with crackling defiance, leaving behind a massive trail of fire and smoke – proof that man had once again slipped the surly bonds and bested Newton's hold.
It was a re-awakening for me, and hearkened back to a young boy standing beneath the behemoth Saturn V, filled with post-Apollo euphoria and brimming with an unbridled passion for space. Thirty years later, space exploration is plagued with dated paradigms, abysmal acquisition performance, a growing list of hazards, and a history of administrations buying into the false economy of slashing NASA budgets - cutting the fuel line for the very engine that can drive our future.
Add to this the fact that space, which once captured our imaginations, is now simply viewed as commonplace - prey to the rampant apathy and pessimism coursing through society today. Instead of looking to space as the key to our destiny, or recognizing the amazing advances that have come as a result of exploration, it is merely seen as a drain on our fragile economy and limited resources.
Despite these issues, I refuse to believe that our future is grim. I refuse to believe that we have exhausted all opportunities to shape tomorrow, and I have faith that space exploration will reclaim its rightful place as a global beacon of hope that fires our imagination. Yes, we stand at a precipice – a dawn of a new age of exploration. It is in this light that I encourage a call-to-arms of sorts, so that you – the space professional – might come away with an understanding that you hold the power to shape human evolution and inspire the next generation of dreamers. To do that, I would like to talk to you about three small phrases: "when you knew," "why not," and "what's next?"
The first step in this introspective battle cry is to remember the noble and altruistic purpose behind your career choice. It is the type of thing with its genesis in elementary school as you launch your first model rocket, the first time you hear "to boldly go where no man has gone before," the first time you see the video of Neil Armstrong changing the world with the phrase "that's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." I am talking about a magical spark that I am positive everyone reading this understands, because it is why you do what you do. I want to take you back to that moment that you knew in your heart you were going to become a part of the human space endeavor.
AIAA has begun posting small vignettes on their website which encapsulates this concept. It summarizes the moment or series of events that defined their members as inquisitive visionaries, ones that questioned everything and dreamed without limits. People do not typically get involved with space because they want to be wealthy or because they yearn for fame – they do it because they love the constant challenge of a rapidly changing environment, because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves ... it's because they are inspired dreamers.
I caught the space bug that day - staring up at the resting giant in Houston's rocket zoo - but it was not until I talked with my father on his deathbed that it became my passion. I had returned from college to tell him that I was quitting to come home and help run the family business. He just laughed, and told me "your head has always been firmly planted in the stars - not here - I dare you to dream." George Bernard Shaw captured dad's sentiment when he said, "You see things; and you say Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say Why not?"
Our country - actually, all of humanity - will always need a spark to awaken our questing spirit and motivate us to ask "why not." For 50 years, civil and defense space programs provided that spark through the challenge of space exploration, and while constrained by technology, funding and politics, the true profit of space is still measured in knowledge. That profit margin encourages boundless, borderless, creative magic, and I firmly believe that this crucible of creativity is ideally suited to forge our future and spur mankind by continually pushing the limits of our potential - forcing us to find new ways to look at problems and discover solutions.
My last job, flight-testing the F-22, is a superb example of this mentality. Say what you want about the long and tumultuous Raptor program, but don't you ever question that aircraft in front of the men and women who fly it, maintain it, or those unlucky enough to fly against it. The F-22 has changed the face of the battlefield forever with quantum leaps in technology and capability - born of a group of engineers, contractors, and testers who could not help but ask "why not?"
Within that culture, and the associated budget constraints, we endeavor to continually push the limits and give every ounce of capability that we can back to the warfighter. Sometimes we pay for daring those limits – like my friend David "Cools" Cooley. Cools lost his life recently pushing a Raptor to the edge - in the valiant pursuit of a new limit for a new weapon - so that our brave front-line pilots might have another tool in their arsenal to promote freedom around the globe.
Cools' death was a devastating blow to the test community, but we know it will not be the last. We will improve our procedures the best we can, but in the end, we know there are some things that are worth risking it all for. And we will continue to do so, because as I said before, "why not" is not just a phrase, it is a state of mind. In fact, if you ask "why not" long enough, it will change the way you think. You will expand your perception beyond the here and now, and eventually begin to ask, "what's next?"
Of course, as we reach for our future, we may need to look to our past – to generation after generation who not only dreamed the impossible, they made it happen. They showed us a hunger for exploration that took us to the moon and beyond, channeling an almost childlike optimism that anything is possible. That attitude is what continues to spur our evolution into something more, and why we can never stop asking "what's next?" As once was said on TV's West Wing, "... for we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what's next."
To conceive of "what's next" is to view life through a sanguine lens that stokes humanity's flame of prosperity by not only providing a common societal goal, but also by igniting a self-sustaining cycle of inspiration. Perhaps the most important part of this cycle is that in looking towards tomorrow, you can rouse a whole new generation by providing those "when you knew" moments.
The boundaries of what we know as a civilization are eclipsed by the limitless reaches of space, making it the perfect medium to explore what is next - for with space, there are no limits. Or, in the words of the famous poet Robert Browning, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" It is our duty, our destiny, to reach beyond what we think is achievable and right now, we find ourselves at a rare moment in history. We have an opportunity, with the birth of the Constellation program, that we have not had for decades. An endeavor that can ignite the most noble aspects of the human soul, so that we might elevate our vision beyond the everyday, and help the human race take its next evolutionary step. No longer confined to Low Earth Orbit, mankind can once again explore – the Moon, Mars, and beyond ...
As we know, space exploration is not easy; space is the harshest environment that a human can dare traverse. As we transition through the boundary of Bernoulli to the land of Kepler, we are greeted by a host of perils and dangers. But it is because of, not in spite of, these difficulties and challenges that make what you do in space so amazing, by forcing us to stretch, and reach beyond the perceived impossible. Today's new space systems will fuel tomorrow's society ... simply put, YOU are "what's next."
Think about it - someone reading this article could create the next fundamental shift in how we create and harness power, or learn the secret of black holes, or spark a revolution in propulsion or communications - who knows? It could be the idea that you scribbled on the back of a napkin last night. YOU could not only be "what's next," you could change the entire equation of our hereafter.
The very power of that thought warrants a challenge, so I want you all to think back to the moment "when you knew." Remember the magical spark that first interested you in space, and harness it - so that instead of merely settling for "why," you open your mind and redefine the bounds of our possible by asking "why not?" Because if you can rediscover your passion, and keep it with you everyday, you may be the one person whose passion for space may actually define "what's next," and in the process, change the world.
Update June 23, 2009:
SpaceRef has posted Jack Fischer's article too.
Update June 29, 2009:
Jack Fischer has been selected as a new astronaut candidate! Congratulations!