Monday, July 27, 2009

The Death of NASA

Tom Wolfe has a superlative column over at the Sunday NY Times (yes, the Grey Lady actually prints something worthwhile every now and again), titled "One Giant Leap to Nowhere." He makes the compelling case that the American space program began it's long descent the moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon:

NASA’s annual budget sank like a stone from $5 billion in the mid-1960s to $3 billion in the mid-1970s. It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.

As a result, the space program has been killing time for 40 years with a series of orbital projects ... Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission, the International Space Station and the space shuttle. These programs have required a courage and engineering brilliance comparable to the manned programs that preceded them. But their purpose has been mainly to keep the lights on at the Kennedy Space Center and Houston’s Johnson Space Center — by removing manned flight from the heavens and bringing it very much down to earth. The shuttle program, for example, was actually supposed to appeal to the public by offering orbital tourist rides, only to end in the Challenger disaster, in which the first such passenger, Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher, perished.

Wolfe is right. We are missing that "vision thing," that once unified a nation. He makes the compelling, and I think accurate, argument that the whole Apollo program was a case of "single combat..." we had to beat the Soviets to the moon!

Perhaps it is time for a new vision, as Wolfe suggests:
For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission, and every overture has been entertained only briefly by presidents and the Congress. They have so many more luscious and appealing projects that could make better use of the close to $10 billion annually the Mars program would require. There is another overture even at this moment, and it does not stand a chance in the teeth of Depression II.
It disturbs the eco-freaks and statists to no end when you say that man has a "destiny," beyond the Earth. We are supposed to be insignificant little squeeks undeserving of anything more than the next snail or ant...just another life form, only mildly more sentient. Obviously, I disagree. In the famous words of Buzz Lightyear - "to the Universe and beyond!"


Anonymous said...

wait, really? i had no idea you were in favor of increasing the space program. finally, something that the rumbler and I genuinely agree on. damned interesting stuff, that. the earth is indeed a single point of failure, and given how poorly-run it is on the whole... yeah, lets get to work.

I find it especially interesting that people whine about the price tag (after the freaking bailout, can anyone say 'rounding error'?) especially given the number of incredibly useful breakthroughs that can be sourced to the space program. Everything from new deep-sea technology used in oil drilling to velcro are the unintended consequences of the space program... we should give them whatever it takes to make it happen. not to mention the way it would shape the future of america's youth - I myself trained as an aerospace engineer until lack of opportunity forced a drastic retraining - providing something 'glamorous' for young engineers to aspire to (instead of, for example, becoming crooked financiers) could truly spark the genesis of a new renaissance. sure as $hit can't hurt, anyway...

(I do have to say that I also have a beautiful vision of finding life on other planets and finally once and for all writing the epitaph to the 'humans and earth are special/magic/unique because of religion' argument, which I assume you are less enthused about... but common ground is common ground. i'll take it.)

Rumbler said...

Yes, my friend, contrary to your deeply held - dare I say "religious?" belief that all conservatives are knuckle dragging troglodytes, most of us are actually greatly in favor of the space program. Far more, according to Gallup, than your mulish brethren.

I agree with you about the potential technological renaissance that could result from this effort.

We'll just have to agree to disagree on the earth being a point of failure. Surprisingly, many people of faith are not concerned about finding life on other worlds (or in other forms). It does not impact my well-founded belief that we are God's creatures and that through Christ we are His sons.

Viva la common ground.

Anonymous said...