With the end of the shuttle program, it seems to me it’s time to do some serious contemplation about what we should do next with NASA.
I’m sure some would like to put the whole organization in mothballs, but many of us have higher hopes. Some are frustrated that we don’t go to the moon any more. Others would like to see Mars explored. Some have their eyes on deep space. I’m fascinated by all of these possibilities. There is a boundless Universe out there waiting for us to get out and explore.
And there are benefits of doing so even here at home on Earth. We gained a great deal more from going to the moon than simply moondust. We advanced technology and honed our knowledge of the sciences in important ways because of our interest in space. It calls out to us and taunts us with the very clear message that “you will not get here without a spirit of invention.” Cordless power tools for the home, windshear prediction for airplanes, not to mention global telecommunications via satellite and many, many other advances can trace their roots directly to the space program. It was, as Armstrong put it, “one giant leap for mankind.”
The annual budget of NASA is not even huge, by the way. One survey showed that many Americans imagine the NASA budget to be enormously bigger than it actually is, the average respondent wrongly guessing it consumes a quarter of the national budget—one dollar of every four! In fact, the NASA budget has, over time, adjusted for inflation, averaged about $15 billion annually, an amount dwarfed by what we spend in Iraq, for example. In percentage terms, the NASA budget is only 0.58% of the national budget. A little over a half of one percent. In round numbers, that means only about one dollar of every 200 goes to NASA. But the impact in terms of science, technology and societal optimism is very much larger.
Carl Sagan was more modest in his estimation of the day-to-day consequences, although he died in 1996, when the web was only in its infancy and before cell phones and mobile media had transformed the world of communication. Even so, he was able even then to express the sense of optimism that our space program has brought us in a way that few today could even begin to:
And especially with the Earth’s climate changing, there is a lot to learn from studying how other planets work that we can apply to our own world. It was the study of outer space by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s that first identified the greenhouse effect, for example. The planet Venus is often cited as a victim of the effect, and offers a useful opportunity for study of something we’d rather not see played out here on our planet.
NASA has been instrumental in helping us to acquire hard scientific data about Climate Change, and analyses of the significance of that data. NASA has offered us critical data about the the ozone layer. And it has been tracking issues related to the climate. NASA data reminds us, for example, that 2010 was tied with 2005 for the warmest year on record. “If the warming trend continues, as is expected, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, the 2010 record will not stand for long,” explains James Hansen, the director of Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
In my estimation, we are already, each of us, in line to go, as Star Trek would portray it, “where no man has gone before.” We are each astronauts, of a sort, on our way to an alien planet that is barely habitable, or perhaps uninhabitable. Spaceship Earth is headed in that direction already, as we are collectively opting not to steer it. In the end, and I use those words with all due irony, I fear that Spaceship Earth will almost certainly be that alien planet—and much sooner than many people expect.
At this point, the last thing on Earth, quite literally, that I’d eliminate from the budget is the space program because we’d better start doing serious research into knowing how to live in a world that was not designed for humans. We designed and engineered the world to be that way, mind you, but as we did we gave no attention to whether it would be livable by humans. We left that to the free market, and the free market didn’t see a profit angle.
Even today, if you talk to free market advocates, they will respond by saying they don’t see any “proof” of bad things coming but they will quickly acknowledge that they do fear the possibility of impact on their wallet. And still the rest of us reward those who champion this view of the world over a view that says livability is everything. We have simply declined to make survival of our civilization a priority. Talk of a sixth mass extinction event, like that which killed the dinosaurs, is not just idle speculation but a serious concern of modern researchers.†
Libertarians and free market advocates see the solution to such concerns as a cut in the federal budget for agencies that monitor this kind of thing. No budget means no pesky scientists fussing, trying to dictate policy. Neat and tidy. Basically, they want to let the discussion move to the private sector where the outcome of science can be freely molded to suit business planning and presentation needs, as it was with the BP oil spill and the BP scientists who’ve been allowed to assure us that all is well.
For my money, given how we’re approaching things otherwise, if you want to cut one thing in the NASA budget, let it be the rockets. We don’t need rockets to get us to an alien world. Just put the shuttle right there on the runway with cinder blocks instead of wheels, and then wait. Climate Change will take us the rest of the way.
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†James Hansen’s excellent book Storms of My Grandchildren clearly spells out both the science behind some of these climate concerns in a way that’s easily accessible to the ordinary reader. And it comes full of passion, nicely separated from the science so that you can understand that the passion is borne of the science and not vice versa, as some denialists have maintained.