If you want to know the value of space exploration, look no further than the local weather report.
According to an expert who spoke in Rapid City on Sunday, one of the most recognizable benefits of mankind's desire to explore beyond our planet is the surprisingly accurate nature of weather reports based on satellite images of meteorological patterns back here on Earth.
"Just think of the amount of lives that have been saved as a result of being able to predict hurricanes, thunderstorms or floods," Tom Durkin, deputy director of the NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium, said after a presentation at the Journey Museum in Rapid City on Sunday. "It's space technology, but you don't think of that."
Many more technological advances are on the horizon if space exploration — while remaining extremely costly and dangerous — is continued, Durkin said.
As part of the Journey Museum's Learning Forum Series, Durkin on Sunday presented information on current and upcoming NASA missions to space, highlighting the recently successful test flight of Orion, a deep-space vessel that could one day send up to four astronauts to Mars.
The test flight of Orion, an unmanned roughly four-hour flight that circled the Earth twice, was completed on Friday, Dec. 5. The next step is attaching the vessel to rockets that dwarf any previous Apollo mission — power needed to propel deep-space travel — and completing another unmanned flight.
And by 2021, NASA anticipates Orion, with its massive rockets, could complete a third test run, this time with astronauts en tow, Durkin said.
Decades after the space race of the 1960s, and the frequent shuttle missions of the late 20th century, appeared to have ebbed, a new desire to leave the boundaries of our planet has arisen.
Other recent space missions include the November landing of a robot, dubbed Philae, on a comet by the European Space Agency.
On a less successful note, a private-sector mission spearheaded by Virgin Galactic to become the first space-bound airliner met disaster during a test run in October when the vessel exploded just after takeoff, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
But if one day proven successful, the ultimate goal, at least for Orion, is to put human feet on the surface of the Red Planet, though there is no set deadline and could be another decade later before such an astronomical feat is realized.
"This mission to Mars is so much more, in terms of other exploration we've undertaken, it's a first for humanity. This truly is the New World, in the sense of being off the Earth," Durkin said.
And such a step could bring the world together, he said, and work toward a common good. A successful manned mission to Mars could easily be likened to — though probably far exceed — the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned mission to orbit the moon and return to Earth safely.
"It was in the midst of all sorts of social strife, political unrest and, here in our country, the race relation issues back in the 1960s, the Vietnam War, but when we went to the moon," Durkin said. "And we saw the image of the Earth from that far away for the very first time — there was a billion people who were watching on Earth.
"We all just realized, you know, we all live together on this one beautiful little blue marble, as the astronauts called it," he added. "Maybe if we think about that more from that perspective, we might be able to get along better than we do sometimes, and it's these kind of major missions that, I think, can really make people stop and think and say 'how can we work together'."