I’m none too fond of NASA. In lieu of advancing the frontiers of manned spaceflight, NASA spent a couple of decades wasting time and energy on the pretty-but-largely-useless shuttle program. The space shuttle could have been a worthwhile component of a larger drive toward orbital manufacturing, followed by exploring and exploiting the inner solar system. Could have been. What it turned into was a political show-horse which leeched desperately-needed funding from actual science and exploration projects and essentially crippled the US space industry when the photogenic but limited-utility orbiters were inevitably retired without a useful replacement vehicle. The stupidly wasted opportunities over the last three decades make my blood boil.
NASA has managed to pull off some staggeringly good science in spite of the shuttle debacle. Rovers on Mars; robot spacecraft visiting other planets, moons, and asteroids; orbiting sensors watching the solar weather; and the enormous work of searching for and tracking potential Earth-impactors were all getting accomplished during the lean years when the lion’s share of the funding was poured down the shuttle rat-hole. Despite my misgivings about NASA management in general and the shuttle program in particular, the non-shuttle folks at the agency have been almost textbook examples of making bricks without straw. My mixed feelings about NASA aside, I am firmly convinced that a robust presence in space- specifically meaning more than just low-Earth orbit- is a key underpinning to continued US economic and military superiority.
The US got a huge amount of payback for the money spent on the Space Race in terms of follow-on technologies and spin-offs. We also got the infrastructure to maintain a constellation of satellites which continue to provide vital real-world service for our high-tech civilization. Learning how to put men on the moon taught us how to safely and reliably put stuff into orbit, which in turn gave us the ability to see and hear most of what goes on all over the world. This ability- taken for granted by the average American citizen- is literally priceless, and gives the US an enormous military advantage in preventing or fighting future conflicts. Our ability to see/listen-in on potential enemies and communicate with friendly units anywhere on the planet is a direct result of the US space program. Our current military peerlessness is based on it.
Despite all of this well-documented benefit from the space program, there are loads of people in this country who are chomping at the bit to gut or eliminate the US space program in a stupid rush to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Apollo program cost the equivalent of about $200.oo per US citizen when it was running. This was (and is) a bargain of stellar magnitude by any measure, but there are people in this country- sadly including many of our professional political class- who shriek and gibber about “wasting” money on space when we could be spending that money on vote-buying schemes here on Earth. The truth is that the US could have funded fifty Apollo-style missions for the price of a week of combat operations in the Sandbox. The space program has delivered proven real-world benefits for the money. Can our military adventures in the Middle East make the same claim?
When the current administration chose to retire the shuttle fleet, I was among many who were unhappy with the decision (they were lovely bits of engineering, and I’m a sucker for well-designed equipment), but accepted it under the assumption that the budget formerly allocated to the shuttle fleet might be turned to more useful ends at NASA. That assumption turned out to be so much wishful thinking. The people I once chastised for what I deemed hyperbole about “abandoning space” turn out to have been correct, as shown by the latest budget proposal from the White House.
In a time when the US is falling behind in science and engineering- historically American strong suits- the President has decided to throw the fiscal worrywarts a bone called NASA. In the interest of appearing to be financially prudent, the President is scaling back the poster child for American engineering and technological progress. How many kids will struggle through the tough scholastic requirements for engineering and the sciences when the biggest market for those fields is cutting back funding? Fewer NASA programs means fewer companies will be getting money to design and build spacecraft. Those companies will therefore have a reduced interest in hiring new engineers and technicians. Tighter NASA science budgets mean fewer science missions, which in turn mean less interest on the part of universities and businesses to employ scientists. Fewer engineers, scientists, and technicians being hired reduces the need for students of those disciplines. So much for American excellence in engineering and the sciences. The one thing America is traditionally good at is being put at risk to create the impression of fiscal restraint.
You want fiscal prudence? Try trimming back on wasteful military adventures. Stop paying farmers to not grow food. Stop paying those farmers who do grow food to turn perfectly good corn into largely useless ethanol for fuel. Trimming a few million dollars from a few NASA programs is the height of folly when we waste billions on the items I just mentioned. And those are just the ones I thought of while typing. Anyone willing to do a little research could almost certainly find more. Please do, by the way.
Reducing America’s presence in space- which is what the current budget amounts to- is a bold statement to the effect that the US is no longer looking outward. We’re no longer interested in pushing the boundaries of what we can do, because we seem to be more interested in wallowing around in what we can’t. This attitude has historically been a symptom of a civilization in decline. I’m not interested in contributing to the decline of the United States of America. I’m interested in science and engineering and technology, not least because those things make life better for everyone- including Americans. As an American, I want to do well while doing good. The technology we build today will help feed, clothe, and heal the people of tomorrow. Reducing the overall level of misery on the planet also reduces the competition for resources and the need for military genital measuring contests. This helps make the world to come safer and more stable than the world we live in now.
Why us? Why should America expend the time, money, and manpower to maintain a presence in space? Because- flawed and occasionally idiotic as we may collectively be- a future with an America strong in technology and the sciences is more likely to be a better future than one built in the absence of a US presence in space. Rest assured, humans are going to explore and exploit the solar system. I think it would be better for humanity as a whole if the ones who speak English didn’t have to use foreign currencies to buy tickets as passengers on another country’s spacecraft.
Current status: Peeved
Current music: Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh