So Much For Space

14 02 2012

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


30 01 2012

… or maybe dat course. Could even be da other course.

Horrible jokes aside, the tone of civil conversation in this country has been growing ever more un-civil over the last few years. This may be just another swing in the perpetual cycle of national enthusiasms here in the US, but the levels of cognitive dissonance recently have been incomprehensibly vile.

During the late, unlamented Bush administration, you may recall that swarms of self-professed lefties essentially went off the mental rails for eight years. Granted that Dumbya was not the best leader, orator, or philosopher to ever inhabit the Oval Office, the sheer vitriolic excesses of his ideological opposites were off the charts. Mind you, there were many excellent reasons to oppose the Shrub regime: botching the Afghanistan problem in mid-game in favor of a useless war in the sandbox, grabbing ever-broader executive power under the guise of “national security”, essentially nationalizing airport security, playing grade-school accounting tricks to thinly disguise the depths of shit in the debt-hole we were being driven into at full speed, etc. In lieu of focusing on these legitimate grievances, the left-wing scream machine was largely shrieking about Bush suspending elections and ruling by fiat or similar fictions. Not all of them, of course, but there were scads of folks way out in left field (pun intended) working themselves into a frenzy over the imagined abuses of the Shrub administration and drowning out most of the rational members of the Left through sheer volume and general dumbassery.

Let us contrast the behavior of the Left with those of the Right during the same period. The term hippie suddenly returned to the national lexicon after being declared officially demised three decades ago. Dissent was widely derided as treason, and the god-botherer segment of the country was practically wetting itself at the level of access it was granted. In lieu of of proclaiming some of the good works accomplished by Bush & company, too many on the Right were busy trying to jam their particular version of morality down the country’s collective throat and expending what little political capital they had left in the process.

When the two largest political parties spend all of their time declaiming each other as treacherous, diabolical, and un-American for years on end, it’s a sure sign that; (A) they’re both correct, and (B) the people in the political center- the ones who really matter in our political system- begin to feel marginalized and left out of the process. Worse still, those moderate centrist voters are bearing the brunt of the economic and civil load caused by each party spending all their energies doing what is best for the Party in lieu of what is best for the country.

When Obama got elected in 2008, political dialogue in the US underwent a rapid 180-degree turn. The right-wingnuts just could not seem to come to grips with the fact that they had lost the White House to a Democrat- a black Democrat. The Irish kid embodied just about every single quality the fundamentalist mental cases on the Right abhorred: Ivy-League-educated, from the fourth circle of Hell called Chicago, only casually religious, intelligent, and black. Despite the many protestations that race doesn’t enter into the Right’s dislike of Obama, the despicable and thinly-veiled bigotry displayed by the Republican “base” over the past three years leaves no objective observer with any doubt about the overtly racist underpinnings of the ideological fundamentalist Right.

Encouraged by their churches and the exhortations of pundits on TV and radio, the far right went completely berserk. The President was somehow illegitimate, a usurper, a muslim, a communist, an atheist, and virulently anti-American. Everything Obama said or did was part of a global conspiracy to destroy America and convert us all to Islam at gunpoint. Granted that these sentiments and conspiracy theories have always been out there, but since the 2008 election this dreary litany of bullshit has somehow become the mainstream message from the Right.

To be fair, the Left went from passionately decrying everything the President said or did during the Bush administration to loudly and passionately masturbating in public at everything the Obama administration says or does. All of the Left’s political opponents were described as venal, racist xenophobes, and any disagreement with any of Obama’s suggestions or policies became tantamount to treason. I’ll grant that the Left seems to have cooled off a bit in their hero worship of the Irish Kid- at least in public, but the Left-wingnuts still manage to grab some air-time to publicly display their fetish.

Now that I’ve described the extreme Left and extreme Right, what about everyone else? What bout the vast majority of Americans who aren’t partisan zealots? Judging by the tenor of the current political season, they’re being ignored at best and actively abused at worst. In order to get merely nominated to run against the President, the Republican candidates are desperately pandering to their base, the lowest of the lowest common denominators: the poorly educated, deeply religious, and casually racist who are often suffering the most from the economicalypse. In tight economic times, an incumbent President is often seen as vulnerable. The current crop of Republican candidates seem to be Hell-bent on winning the upcoming election for Obama by engaging in a vitriolic, nausea-inducing, scorched-Earth campaign which is driving away the centrist voters in droves. Those centrist voters- like me- are sick and tired of the slander and sleaze of this overly-long campaign season. Most of us are saying, “a pox on both their houses!”

I didn’t vote for Obama. I didn’t like his voting record in the Senate or his political history from Illinois, and I’m none too happy with several of his policies and positions. I’m not going to vote for him this November, either- for the same reasons.While the President has largely managed to maintain the appearance of being above the fray, this is mostly a carefully built illusion for public consumption designed to maximize his appeal to undecided and independent voters. I’m not going to vote for any of the gigolos currently vying for the Republican nomination, either. All of them together don’t add up to a single decent human. I will vote for someone who is passionate, articulate, dedicated, intelligent, and a demonstrably better human than any of the creatures trying to get into the White House or already living there. I am speaking, of course, about Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Unlike the vermin desperately struggling for power and prestige, Dr. Tyson is genuinely likeable, good-natured, and good- humored. He is careful, when he speaks, to differentiate between facts and opinions. He is a familiar face to everyone with even a modest interest in science on both sides of the aisle, and he doesn’t speak to his audience as if their heads were solid bone. For his running mate, I would like to nominate Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. He is almost a polar opposite of Dr. Tyson, being curmudgeonly uninterested in other peoples’ opinions and profoundly outspoken in the face of stupidity.

There may be a few people who read this and assume I am joking. Rest assured that I am not. I believe either Dr. Tyson or Mr. Sendak would be a far better President than anyone else in any political party in this country. Dr. Tyson would bring humor and intelligence to the office, and Mr. Sendak’s refusal to put up with stupidity would both be a refreshing change from just about every professional politician of the last thirty years. Furthermore, Dr. Tyson is a past master of public speaking, and is well-known for his ability to convert complex concepts into language the common man can understand. This last attribute- above all- is what has been missing from the country’s political communication for most of my lifetime. It’s time we returned civility to our political discourse. We can disagree without being disagreeable, and those who disagree with you are not necessarily your enemies. We’re all Americans, which means we’re brash, uncouth, quarrelsome, and unpredictable. We need to remember that the folks with different political views are also Americans. If we continue driving a wedge into every artificial division in our society, being American will no longer be a Good Thing.

Current status: Nauseated

Current music: Helena Beat by Foster the People