Bang! Zoom! To the moon!

Ralph Kramden joins NASA, uppercuts astronauts into orbit.

I find the history of space endlessly fascinating. If you’re interested, find a book about the history of western science. Suffice to say, many ideas about the nature of space and the universe were proposed. For the history books, please remember that Copernicus was part of a religious sect that believed that the sun was the embodiment of God and, therefore, the center of the universe.

But tonight’s digression is a little more modern. A friend of mine loves space and satellites. He told me the reason he got interested in space was Star Trek. He also told me the history of satellites. Apparently Arthur C. Clarke, writer of the famous 2001 series of books, wrote an essay basically describing the modern satellite. The only different between his description and the eventual reality was that Clarke envisioned people living in the satellites replacing the vacuum tubes as they burned out. Then again, the Greeks believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. I suppose we can’t always be correct.

Still, an overriding goal throughout the history of mankind was to find a way to send humans into space. The curiosity of humans drives us to explore places that we cannot otherwise reach. And so, in the tension formed after World War II, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. found themselves showing off their nuclear delivery technology by strapping people in a cockpit where a warhead would normally go. This dual nature of the space program is often forgotten; instead the triumphs (and certainly the calamities) are remembered in the history textbooks as triumphs are much more in line with the human spirit, rather than the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Today, manned space flight is in serious trouble. The returns on investment are pitiful, and having people in space no longer carries the same meaning as it once did. Suddenly George Bush, readying his 2004 election campaign, uses NASA as leverage to further his base of support. A trip to Mars? A base on the moon? And with a price tag of only $800 million, it’s a deal you can’t refuse!

Man was not meant to be in outer space. If we had, then our bodies wouldn’t need absurd amounts of protection to survive in the lack of atmosphere. Even worse, we don’t have the technology to protect the passengers on a trip to Mars from the deadly radiation astronauts would be exposed to over the 6+ month, possibly several year, journey. But for the rest of this argument, let’s assume that we do have the technology, and that the technology won’t fail like the last few Mars rover missions have.

So first, let’s get the facts straight. Neither teflon, velcro, nor Tang were the results of space flight. Each was invented before astronauts took to the skies. In general, most innovations that made it to the space program were not invented for the space program. For that matter, many of them were not made by Americans either. The developments from manned space flight are questionable at best. I can’t name anything that came from a space shuttle trip that has affected my life.

And the costs… Remember that $800 million is only for planning and preliminary research. I don’t know the numbers, but I would estimate the cost of a manned space flight is many (hundreds?) times greater than an unmanned flight. Go back to Clarke’s satellites — think of how much it would cost to keep a person alive in a satellite, including food, pay, entertainment (after all, it does get boring in space alone), and eventually getting that person back from space. That’s to say the least of a satellite much larger (5-10 times larger), much more expensive, and much more prone to problems than an unmanned satellite. If you don’t believe me, do some research on the budget overruns of the International Space Station.

So we went to the moon, but for some reason it was decided to keep going back to space. I suppose we needed to keep paying all our scientists to stop them from going to one of the communist countries. Another reason was to further the dreams of Americans, but somehow space lost its romance after we went to the moon. Today, a space shuttle getting destroyed is a tragedy worthy of weeks of news coverage, but another space flight is a 20 second news item on the 6 o’clock news.

And so NASA is set to receive some $14 billion this year. This may be adjusted because the Bush administration has little affinity for the ISS — deciding to scale back the station in the face of budget shortfalls in the rest of the government. I couldn’t be happier. Putting a person in space was a noble act but largely brought upon by tensions between the U.S.S.R. and the United States (in short, one-upsmanship).

The ultimate failure here is that the goals of manned space flight are not in line with any other goals of the space program or even goals of Americans as a whole. People live in many uninhabitable environments: Antarctica, under the ocean, and in trees, and we don’t care about those people at all. Likewise, we don’t care about the space shuttle. We don’t care about the ISS. We won’t care about a base on the moon. We might care about man on Mars, but getting there is infeasible currently. Perhaps the best way to state this case is to ask yourself which you would rather have: $800 million spent on the planning stages of a moon base and Mars trip or $800 million spent on education?

If money was abundant, I would be more than willing to revisit this argument. Given the state of things, I can only hope Bush gets ridiculed mercilessly until he pulls the plan. Bush already had to take that plan out of the State of the Union speech after being pressured by his fellow Republicans, afraid that it would be fiscally irresponsible to propose such a plan given the current economic conditions. No shit — I can spell “political suicide” even if Bush can’t.

So what should we do in space? Satellites are fine. Maybe people up there would be nice eventually. I feel that the time and money spent on manned space flight could have been better spent making huge strides in technology for unmanned space devices.

But above all, why the hell should we keep going to space when we can’t even get things right on Earth? Maybe the people in government and at NASA know something we don’t — that we must go to space because we’ve royally fucked things up on Earth past the point of repair. The first resident of the new moon base will be George Bush, and he’ll have a front row seat to the destruction of the earth a few hundred thousand miles away. I can see the advertisements now: Watch the Earth crumble under the rule of humans from your own suite in the GWB Moon Base! Act now and get your own lunar rover!

But I digress. Be very sceptical of the space program. The way I see it, we should only allow people in space, underwater, and other places only if I can afford it. That means you might have to wait until I die to get back to space. For that matter, you might have to wait a while to travel by plane. I hope you’re patient.

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