We Are Frustrated Spacefarers

Bubbling in the background of online science blogs has been a growing unhappiness with NASA’s scaled-back ambitions. A generations-long fascination with space exploration is part of being an American. We eat up science and fiction and we dream of spaceships.

Before Apollo, the nation’s embarrassment of poverty was used to squelch the calls to do this impossible and expensive thing. But screw poor people; we got some Tang and that historic photograph of the moon that Stuart Brand goes on about. Over time, NASA became something of a cultural treasure in spite of its branding problem.

Click on this picture to visit the Wikipedia page where you can learn more about Low Earth Orbit and why it is a fixture of modern life.

A visual explanation of what low Earth orbit (LEO) is courtesy of Wikipedia. Click the image to learn more.

Fast forward to today. Phil Plait laments that we aren’t boldly going any further than low Earth orbit (LEO) in a recent Bad Astronomy post. While LEO is important, he thinks it’s not enough. Some choice bits:

The idea of going back to the Moon is one I very much strongly support, but I get the impression that the plan itself is not well-thought out by NASA. The engineering, sure, but not the political side of it. And it’s the politics that will always and forever be NASA’s burden.

I’m old enough to remember when NASA could do the impossible. That was practically their motto. Beating the Soviets was impossible. Landing on the Moon was impossible. Getting Apollo 13 back safely was impossible.

NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds.

I agree with all of that, but still fall back to that whole question of whether the money can be spent better elsewhere. For the purposes of this exploration, let’s give the point to Phil. What do we do about it?

Short answer: wait

Can-do spirit of this scale is cyclical and the WWII post-war period was a unique time in American history. The reorientation of the war machine toward a domestic economic market brought with it bucketfuls of cash for science research. Since they had yet to be saddled with things like animal care & use protocols and other best-practice frameworks, scientists could pretty much do what they wanted.

Against the backdrop of a terrifying cold war with the USSR, this atmosphere made it possible to turn billions of dollars into a political bludgeon against the Soviets. It also inadvertently created an imagination engine for generations of young Americans.

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But the backdrop is what’s not the same. We have yet to resolve the social-direction argument and are still awaiting another enemy to hate. On the first score, I think we’ve entered the decade where that finds resolution. At some point in the next ten-to-fifteen years, a major war will lock us into full-on crisis mode. Assuming a broadly favorable outcome, this will kick off the next high, which would be analogous to the atmosphere that gave birth the Apollo program.

If things conclude unfavorably? Let’s just say a moon mission won’t be on the table? No matter what happens, space is going get increasingly political because it’s going to be weaponized. Every frontier eventually gets a bunch of guns, and with flocks of satellites running the world, guns will end up in orbit eventually.

A view of astronauts building the International Space Station. Photo by TopTechWriter.US at Flickr.

A view of astronauts building the International Space Station. Photo by TopTechWriter.US at Flickr.

The important question

We don’t need manned missions to do science in space. We can – and have – used robots to explore our solar neighborhood. But many who advocate manned space missions know these things. That’s not their root concern. If the U.S. space-program is merely about science, there’s no reason to send people outside LEO.

But if the  manned space program is also about exploration, then we’ve arrived somewhere that metrics can’t help us with. How do you measure hope and inspiration? We don’t know the added benefits a renewed program will yield, beyond those stated. In the mean time, those of us who want to look up to astronauts again have to bide our time.

We know whether or not a manned space-exploration program is wise or prudent. It’s not. If that’s your measure than the whole endeavor is a bone-stupid idea. But though it’s not wise or prudent, it is audacious, bold, and inspiring.

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2 Responses to “We Are Frustrated Spacefarers”

  1. Josh says:

    Very thought provoking article, it does feel like we are at a real crossroads in the future of space travel.

    I agree with the points that Neil deGrasse made about the benefits of space exploration, though it isn’t anything you can prove.

    For me personally, I think that space exploration is the reason that I care about science today. I can vividly remember watching videos of the moon landing or watching shuttle launches as a kid, they were what first sparked my interest in science. It didn’t lead me to be a scientist, but it did lead to me to understand the importance of it and do what I can to support it.

    I suspect that that was the same for a lot of people, but in reality there is no way to know for sure. My hope is that we will get back to real exploration, but that seems less and less likely every day, at least for the next decade or so.

  2. Matt Warren says:

    President Obama is getting heat for thinking too long-term. http://blog.longnow.org/2010/04/18/thinking-too-long-term/