Once upon a time, that expression meant that there were no limits. The implication was that the sky included the sun, moon, stars, and the spaces between. Now, that expression has become a self-imposed limitation on American scientific endeavor.
I’ll not weary you with the extremely long list of benefits the country and the world have received as a result of the Space Program. It has been done by others far more eloquent than I. I’ll merely mention that one would be hard-pressed to find any aspect of life in the US which bears no debt to the spin-off technologies from the space program in general and the manned space program in particular. In a classic case of “what have you done for me lately?”, America has turned its back on space.
The US manned space program is effectively over. Quite aside from the bittersweet launch of Atlantis being the end of the shuttle program, there is no program currently in the works to put any Americans in space for the foreseeable future. The Constellation program, which was originally hailed as a return to Apollo’s roots, was mismanaged to the point where even die-hard space enthusiasts couldn’t defend it any longer and was eliminated- several years over schedule and still years from producing a working spacecraft/launch vehicle combination. For at least a decade, any Americans going into orbit will be guests on some foreign nation’s spacecraft.
That decade may turn into several. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to savagely cut back on funding for NASA in particular and science in general. Perhaps someone could explain to the members of Congress that the one real advantage the US has over any potential rivals is the technology which has granted us command of space. From satellite communications to electronic eavesdropping to orbital reconnaissance, the US enjoys a massive military edge over any possible threat. That edge has to be kept sharp by legions of engineers and scientists, lest we lose our technological- and thereby our military- advantages.
The Economist has a depressingly accurate article titled, “The End of the Space Age“. Americans in particular and the western world in general are increasingly turning inward mentally. So long as the space program was breaking new barriers and going “where no man has gone before“, generations of schoolchildren wanted to be astronauts and studied mathematics and science. Some of the best engineering and science schools in the world were built and staffed to provide the required training for these professions. To this day, shuttle launches and rocket launches draw large crowds in meatspace and cyberspace alike. Despite this obvious popularity, many universities in the US are cutting back on their science and engineering programs, and Congress is hell-bent on gutting NASA, the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This is nothing less than an assault on science and technology in the United States, ostensibly made in the interest of saving money. Since the sums involved are relatively tiny fractions of the bloated US budget, Congress’ action smacks more of “stunt cost-cutting”- making it look like they’re doing something without actually addressing the problems.
Leaving aside the raping of science funding, let us look at what it takes to make a space program work: Thousands of engineers, technicians, and scientists. These skilled professionals are being forced to take jobs with private companies as the US space program winds down. These men and women possess skills and knowledge which are literally irreplaceable. Assuming the US decided to fully fund a manned space program tomorrow afternoon, re-hiring the skills and knowledge base which has been lost would be extremely expensive. Failing to recover those skilled personnel, it would take years to train and educate a new cadre of professionals to run any new space program.
If cutting costs was the reasoning behind the decision to gut NASA/NOAA/NSF/NIST, I’m sure there are many better sources for the alleged savings. How about the DEA? The staffing budget alone was a little over 2.1 Billion dollars for fiscal year 2011. If the government would quit worrying about pot smokers and growers, I’m sure the DEA could stand a little thinning here and there. Let’s take 25% off the top- call it $500 million. How about the TSA? Everybody hates those jack-booted neanderthals, and with good reason. They’re not just corrupt, power-tripping, authoritarian fuckwits, they’re also completely useless at their intended function. Their budget for 2011 was roughly 43 billion dollars. How about taking 25% off their budget? That would save a cool $10 billion. Shutting down our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan would save a couple hundred billion dollars all by themselves. Since NASA’s budget was less than $20 Billion this year, we could keep all the agencies running at full strength and still cut costs.
I’m sure I am not alone in my desire to maintain a first-rate space program in the US. There have to be others out there who, like me, understand what it means to lose the technological dominance and the literal high ground that dominance has brought us. Those people must speak up and make their wishes known to the hypocritical jackasses which infest the nation’s capitol. Contact your Representatives and Senators and let them know you are appalled by the callous disregard they are showing to the science and technology which makes the US so powerful. I’m off to do that as soon as I post this.
Current status: Annoyed
Current music: Sugar We’re Going Down by Fall-Out Boy