Opinion: It’s Not About Being First


I’m about to say something that seems at odds with the space community-

It’s not about being first.


There is a curious preoccupation with people associated with space exploration and human spaceflight.  That’s the idea of “being first”. First in space, first to orbit, first on the Moon.  First of a gender or ethnicity. First to do “X’.

The media feed off the notion of “first”.  It’s headline ready, easy to report, and doesn’t require any investigation.  Public attentions span being what it is, the notion of “first” fits easily into a sound-byte and sates the Nationalist agenda so many would-be leaders feel necessary to to trumpet.

That said, I don’t mean to imply there is no merit in the accomplishments of the pioneers.  Gagarin and Armstrong will forever be enshrined on the podium of human history.  Nothing can or should diminish the struggle of the minorities who overcome injustices to reach orbit.  Every first launch of a new type of spacecraft is reason for celebration.

But “being first” is is only an achievement if you’re in a race.  If the goal of human spaceflight is making a sustained, operational industry and exploration campaign, then we (as space advocates and popularizers) should be making an effort to applaud the second and third and fourth time something in space is accomplished.  Because it is only after something is repeated that it becomes part the normalcy we hope to achieve.

If we are to tell the story of space exploration, to promote it, to build it properly in the public consciousness, then we need to congratulate the seventeenth mission of any program as much as the first.  Because it wasn’t  Amundsen or Scott that made it possible to people to live and work in Antarctica, it was the establishment of permanent research stations like McMurdo.

There is sort of a trend happening with some aspiring public figures presumptuously announcing their intent to be “the first person on Mars”.  Perhaps this is fueled by the ability to garner attention through social media, or maybe it’s perpetuated by an element of journalism that thrives on bold proclamations.  It’s an unpopular opinion, but I think these premature announcements are , if not unrealistic, then at least distracting.  I admire the setting of goals and the efforts people will go to achieve them, any message celebrating the necessity of self-motivation.

The journey to Mars will be the summation of countless untold struggles, careers, studies, investigations, simulations, campaigns, but most important, the unified cooperation of many people working toward that goal.  It is not, nor should it ever, be the story of one individual. Rather than ride on the nebulous virtue of “being first”, I argue that those who wish to popularize attention to human spaceflight instead devote energy to what is necessary to make the journey possible at all.

Spaceflight may never be routine or operational as so many have hoped, but that is the goal we who promote it should be working to achieve. The story of human space exploration should’t be watered down to who was first to be there.  It must be more than a headline; it must the story of us all.

So here’s to the crew and mission support of the 17th Mission to Mars- you all the one’s who are going to make the future possible.


3 thoughts on “Opinion: It’s Not About Being First

  1. People will always be interested in “firsts” because they represent something new. But the true “firsts”, like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon, involve something that no human being has ever done before. They prove that it really can be done, and in doing so they permanently move it from the realm of possibility to the realm of known fact. This in turn makes the next stage of development seem like a reasonable possibility instead of science fiction, making it far more likely to attract the public funding or private investment that is necessary to put it into practice. The importance of “firsts” is in how they change perceptions.

  2. It is true that ultimately we are aiming for sustainability and permanency. So, yes, if our only goal is to check off a box then we can expend a great deal of effort, money, and risk to achieve a first and then sink into decades-long delays in which we don’t build upon the initial accomplishments.

    That said, I think that, if done correctly, firsts can powerfully help a program which seeks to establish permanent infrastructure. It is not necessarily one or the other.

    In the context of lunar development, it’s the things related to HSF which make up much of the headlines-getting firsts. First woman on the Moon, the first couple, the first dog in the Moon, first Thanksgiving, first dance, first puppy, etc. So there can be a whole series of firsts which provides the excitement, prestige, and inspiration desired by so many space advocates and congressional representatives.

    The excitement of the human element can also infuse significance in the lead-up steps. A prospecting rover characterizing the ice is characterizing water that the crew will need to drink and breathe. The larger landers delivering ice-harvesting hardware could be the same landers which will later deliver crew. The lander will also deliver the habitat and supplies needed for the crew to survive and live in the base, etc. It turns logistics into a human interest story. And the “boring” logistics parts gets supported because the public and hence their representatives care more about people living on the Moon than resource development or orbital servicing.

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