OGDEN -- Humans have an endless curiosity about outer space but have never sent an astronaut beyond the gravitational pull of Earth.
"We've been to the moon," Stacy Palen, Weber State University physics professor, said in a talk Wednesday at WSU about the future of space exploration.
"We haven't even left the earth's gravitational field yet. It's like Christopher Columbus standing at the shore and dipping his toe in, and saying, 'Now I know everything.' "
In truth, there's a lot more to learn before space travel is an option for people, Palen said.
And to build a space program capable of solving all the inherent problems will require hard work by top scientific minds, the knowledge that lots of failures will precede a success, and decades of guaranteed funding with the promise that incoming lawmakers will not slash the budget to solve a short-term problem at the cost of long-term space-exploration projects.
Is America the country dedicated enough to handle that job?
Palen thinks no.
"Every time we have a Congress that doesn't support the James Webb Space Telescope, we have to hire all new people and start over at square one," Palen said.
"We get close to the end of a project, then we bail. The European Union won't let the U.S. use its best telescope because we are unreliable."
Virgin Intergalactic is building a space port like those that already exist in Idaho and New Mexico, Palen said, but eventual flights for consumers will not result in meaningful space exploration: "It will be like a ride at Lagoon, where you go up and you come down."
Palen said corporations that strive for increasing profits each quarter aren't up to the job of space exploration.
"From my perspective, China is the best bet," she said.
Palen said China has a historical record of working for multiple dynasties to get things done, such as the building of the Great Wall.
More recently, the Three Gorges Dam over the Yangtze River was completed, although more than 100 workers and an unknown number of rural area residents lost their lives during the project.
"Americans are probably the most risk-averse society in history," Palen said. "We get very upset when 50 people die from salmonella. Lives were lost twice in our space program, and that pretty much closed down the program."
Palen said she is excited about the "robots" America has sent into space, such as the Mars rovers and the Hubble telescope, which she calls one of mankind's best inventions.
"Let's do robots, then more robots, and after that, let's do more robots," she joked. "I'm all about robots."
But she knows the average citizen is uninspired by the sophisticated scientific tools we shoot into space.
"The human drive is to understand space, which holds the promise of endless novelty," Palen said. "Part of our national mythology is that space is filled with interesting aliens that we can communicate with, and 'much more,' if you watch enough 'Star Trek.' "
Palen doesn't believe space is that crowded with socially savvy, English-speaking aliens, but she said there's a more practical, reality-based reason we should be studying objects in space.
"And that is (what happened to) the dinosaurs."