Sunday, May 1, 2011

What happened to the space program?

Ed Stein's commentary:
When the space shuttle Atlantis makes its final flight at the end of June, the United States’ manned space program will come to an end for the foreseeable future. For those of us who grew up with the space program, first catching up to the Soviets after their launch of Sputnik, then through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, culminating with landings on the moon, there could be nothing more inspiring than seeing Americans expand our horizons into space. First the moon, then Mars, then–who knows? Jupiter, out past the edge of the solar system, intergalactic exploration, starships flying close to the speed of light. But, no. The moon was as far as we got. The shuttle program, interesting as it was, took us only into near-Earth orbit. Shuttles exploded, burned up in re-entry, the romance faded, the fleet aged with nothing to replace it, and the moon is as far as we got. We somehow became a nation more obsessed with cutting taxes and spending than with exploring the universe. A nation that put men on the moon now can’t even figure out how to pave our highways or pay for our schools, much less send men to Mars.

We've been talking about this in the ClassicScienceFiction Yahoo Group. What happened to the U.S. space program? It was more than 40 years ago that we first landed on the Moon, and we seem to have accomplished almost nothing since then.

At least, we have little to show for it. And now it looks like NASA's manned space program is closing down completely. We don't have a replacement for the shuttle - we don't even have a replacement planned - and our astronauts are looking for other work.

I see it as two separate questions - or, perhaps, two separate answers to the same basic question, one short-term and one long-term. Short-term, we just don't have the money.

When George W. Bush announced his proposal to return to the Moon, in January, 2004, it was a nice speech and a useful photo op in an election year, but he never budgeted sufficient funding for it. That he left for his successor. Apparently, coming up with the money was neither fun nor politically popular. And then, after giving us record breaking deficits, with his tax cuts for the rich and two completely unnecessary wars, he collapsed our economy.

Hey, we haven't been this bad off since the Great Depression. We just can't afford manned spaceflight now, especially when Republicans adamantly refuse to go along with any tax increases, not even ending those tax cuts for the rich which were actually supposed to disappear after ten years. Heck, they're actually clamoring for cuts in spending, especially for such luxuries as education, health care, and jobs. And science is one of the things they particularly hate.

I was surprised by this, but apparently the space program has never been especially popular:
Throughout the 1960s, public opinion polls indicated that 45 to 60 percent of Americans felt that the government was spending too much money on space exploration. Even after Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” only a lukewarm 53 percent of the public believed that the historic event had been worth the cost.

“The decision to proceed with Apollo was not made because it was enormously popular with the public, despite general acquiescence, but for hard-edged political reasons,” writes Roger D. Launius, the senior curator at Smithsonian’s divison of space history, in the journal Space Policy. “Most of these were related to the Cold War crises of the early 1960s, in which spaceflight served as a surrogate for face-to-face military confrontation.” However, that acute sense of crisis was fleeting—and with it, enthusiasm for the Apollo program.

And according to that same article, the average American thinks that NASA takes up 24% of the federal budget, instead of the actual amount of one-half of one percent. So they look at NASA as a juicy place to cut, not to increase spending.

Short-term, the money just isn't available. SETI is running out of money, too. Poor societies - or societies that think they're poor, because they don't want to pay taxes - don't do things like this. Only confident, ambitious, wealthy societies are willing to spend money on such things. And right now, that's just not us.

Long-term, IMHO, the reason is a little bit different, although there's an economic component to that, too. I just pointed out that space exploration was never especially popular in America. The fact is, we only went to the Moon because we didn't want the Soviet Union to get there first. It was a "space race," literally. It was a matter of national prestige.

But once we won the race, we realized that there was nothing there. There was no good economic reason to stay on the Moon or to explore elsewhere, either. I'm not saying there's no reason to explore our solar system. It's just that there's no good economic reason.

There doesn't seem to be anything out there that we can't get, far more cheaply, on Earth. And the absolute worst environment on Earth is better suited to human life than the best environment off our planet. Fact is, it would be far easier and far cheaper to colonize Antarctica than anywhere else in our solar system.

So there's nothing pulling us there. There's little or no incentive, except for idle curiosity and scientific research - both useful, but neither popular reasons to spend vast amounts of tax money. And, yeah, there's the romance of it, too, at least for us space enthusiasts. But what we need is a good economic reason.

I really wish we could find one, because I'm a space fan myself. I'm also a strong supporter of scientific research. Being curious about our solar system is a good enough reason for me. And if I needed another one, I worry about us human beings stuck on a single fragile planet. That's really putting all our eggs into one basket.

But I've got to acknowledge reality, too. We haven't been back to the Moon in decades, because there's nothing there. There seems to be nothing on the Moon that will make us rich or improve the lives of people on Earth in any way. Mars is equally inhospitable, and even farther away. And those are the most promising places we can imagine.

The only way we're going to colonize the Moon or Mars is if we become so wealthy that the economics of it really doesn't matter, or if we do discover something in space that gives us the incentive we need. I can't imagine what we might find that would do that.

And as far as wealth goes, well, we're overpopulating the Earth, overfishing our oceans, depleting pretty much all of our resources, and polluting the very atmosphere that keeps us alive. How do you think that's going to turn out?


Anonymous said...

Your an idiot

WCG said...

Heh, heh. That should be "You're."

First rule when calling someone else an idiot: don't make a stupid mistake in a three-word post.

Jim Harris said...

Well, the real mistake your poster made was not saying anything specific. Just calling you an idiot has no information content. I thought your essay was excellent and wondered what you said that he thought idiotic.

WCG said...

I was wondering about that, too, Jim. It's a long post that covers several issues.

But a reply like that just shows a lack of any real arguments. If he could have backed up his opinions, he would have. So clearly, whatever set him off, it wasn't anything he was able to debate rationally.

Anonymous said...

He must have been a crazy right Let's face it, we live in a country of uneducated ignorant people. Most Americans don't even know that the sun is a star, or how many planets we have etc etc. Hell, most don't even know there's 50 states in the U.S. Human beings by nature are pathetic self centered creatures waiting to become extinct because of their own ignorance.

WCG said...

Well, Anonymous, human nature is still the same as it's always been. But we don't have to be ignorant.

Education can fix ignorance. And I don't just mean teaching facts. We can also teach why evidence-based thinking is more valid than faith-based thinking. We can teach why it's always easy to believe what you want to believe (and how that applies to all of us).

Of course, it's hard to educate someone who doesn't want to be educated. People who don't value education won't want to spend money to improve it. And people who cling to faith-based thinking will fiercely oppose anything they see as a threat to that.

But it's not hopeless. We're not trapped by our human nature. The scientific method itself is a way to compensate for it, to get around human nature and still find the truth. And as I say, education can fix ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why there is so little interest in space exploration in America. I'm sure people in countries without space programs wish they had one, would they just quit after they went to the moon? And if your statistic is true about half of Americans not knowing the sun is a star I am not proud to be an America, I'm barely clinging on to that now. Education is what people need, if astranomy was one of the main subjects in school teaching kids about what we already know and what we might be able to do in the future with future technologies that might help. Students are out future, or is that too big of a leap for most Americans. People always complain about Obama not changing everything he said he would, THIS IS A DEMOCRACY, you have to change, you can't just sit around waiting for him to do everything.

Anonymous said...

is true*

WCG said...

That wasn't my statistic, Anonymous. It was from another anonymous commenter. But in general, I agree with you.

Oh, I don't think that teaching astronomy in school would help much. But I do think that students of all ages need to be taught to understand and appreciate science - and more than that, they need to be shown the wonders of science.

In our culture, scientists are considered to be either evil geniuses or foolish nerds - in neither case, admirable. Science gets no respect at all in America. In fact, the Republican Party makes political hay out of being completely anti-science.

But despair is the surest way to ensure that they win. We have to fight for evidence-based thinking, and we can never stop fighting. Unfortunately, the worst of us seem to be filled with enthusiasm, while the best seem to be easily discouraged.

You're right. We can't just sit around hoping for change. But we need the courage to keep going no matter what. Apathy is one of our worst enemies.