The case for space
The worst part of the government shutdown was something that very few people even knew was happening. While Congress bickered and CNN displayed a flashy countdown, thousands of people were sent home from their government jobs. A number of these people belonged to NASA, and while they sat at home, twiddling their thumbs, the Curiosity rover sat on the surface of Mars. Curiosity is a triumph of the human mind, costing billions of dollars to design and build, and its finite battery means that every second of its time on Mars is precious.
Yet during the shutdown, it sat there, motionless, for 16 days.
The space program in this country is in terrible shape. NASA is currently underfunded and understaffed, barely able to keep a few rovers and telescopes in motion and unable to continue it’s mandate of taking man to the stars. And it shows. Our culture reaped enormous benefits from the space race. In addition to developing technologies ranging from Velcro to microprocessors, the space program planted thoughts and dreams of the future into the national psyche. A generation of engineers and scientists were inspired to make a future for themselves and for humanity. In contrast, current U.S. students fall behind their international peers in almost every level, and especially in science, technology, engineering and math.
What happened? The problem began when the space program was defined as a way to show the Soviets who was boss. By tying the NASA into the fervent patriotism of the era, President John F. Kennedy ensured overwhelming public support, but only in the short term. Hundreds of millions tuned in to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon. Far, far fewer watched Pete Conrad and Alan Bean do the same thing, less than four months later. Americans lost interest: we had won, they had lost, all was well. Once we had accomplished this task, there was nothing left to do. After a few highly publicized disasters, NASA lost the favor of the public, which began to see it as a bloated, disaster-prone entity with no real purpose. Worse, successive presidents commandeered NASA to suit their own visions of space, preventing any worthwhile project from lasting more than a decade.
The reasons to explore space are numerous. Commercial industry, such as asteroid mining or solar power plants, would give the U.S. a competitive edge. Space tourism would generate revenue as well as improve the public image of space. In time, the space industry will become just as vital to the success of a nation as the transportation industry is today. That day will come much sooner if we work on it now.
Space exploration cannot succeed if it is left up to the whims of politicians seeking only to ensure their own reelection. Space is not a diversion; it is an investment. And in the long run, it is the only investment that really counts. Part of the government’s role in a capitalist society is to open new markets to the economy. The U.S. government fulfilled this role with the canals, the railroads and the highways. It’s time we did the same for space. We’ve taken one small step. Let’s keep going.