Monday, May 30, 2011

Crocodile cheers

I've progressed from bemused to troubled to angry at the spate of breathless headlines heralding some "final" activity of a space shuttle. A typical example: "Shuttle Endeavour gone forever from space station." The launch, docking, undocking, and landing of each shuttle in the fleet is getting this kind of  treatment. Oh, and the dispersal of the shuttles to museums draws press attention, too.

Why am I so cranky? Because endings are pretty much the only aspect of the U.S. manned space program to get much media interest. What doesn't draw much media attention?

  • Anything happening in space. 
  • The embarrassment of paying monoply prices to the Russians for the next few years to ferry US astronauts to/from the largely US built space station. 
  • The frustrated plea of Harrison Schmitt -- last man (with Eugene Cernan) to stand on the moon; the only scientist (Schmitt has a Ph.D. in geology) to visit the moon; ex-senator -- to Scrap NASA Completely. (It's not that Schmitt is against space exploration -- far from it. Read the article.)
For decade after decade astronauts have spun their (virtual) wheels, endlessly circling Earth, while the media -- and, too often, NASA -- seem content to bask in old glories. Let's look at a couple major space-centric anniversaries:
  • In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, George H. W. Bush called for a return to the moon and ultimately a manned landing on Mars. Twenty-two years later, we're no closer even to the lunar return.
  • A few days ago marked the fiftieth(!) anniversary of the JFK "go-to-the-moon-this-decade speech." The media are nostalgic about that, too -- and remarkably incurious why a moon mission seems daunting and impractical now.
Per the latest administration and NASA pronouncements, American astronauts will land on and return from an asteroid in 2025, and land on and return from Mars in 2035. Will this plan survive the next change in administration -- or will this latest plan, too, fall by the wayside like return-to-the-moon missions? Without public enthusiasm for space exploration -- for which media attention would surely be helpful -- I don't see it happening, any more than Bush 41's announced (and then never fought for) lunar return ever happened.

We can't afford to look outward, some say. We have too many problems on Earth. So: how much does NASA cost? Since 1975, NASA has never gotten more than 1.01% percent (and often much less) of the federal budget. (And it's all spent on Earth, I hasten to remind.) The 2012 request for NASA is about $18B -- about a half percent of the overall federal budget. That proposed $18B for the upcoming government fiscal year is scarcely 1% of the year's proposed deficit. Lack of money isn't the lone reason the space program has floundered -- again, read the Schmitt piece -- but lack of money is a reason.

Because astronauts went to the moon, we finally understand how it happens that Earth has such an unusual satellite. (The short version: a Mars-sized rock smacked into the young Earth.) If astronauts visit some asteroids, we may begin to develop some sense how to deflect a big space rock when, inevitably, one is again on course to wallop Earth.  Maybe we'll learn how to turn space rocks from hazards to cornucopias. If astronauts ever visit Mars, we have a hope of understanding whether life ever existed anywhere besides Earth. By striving for these goals, we'll develop presently unimaginable technologies, just as the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs did (and I have in mind advances in microelectronics more than Tang or Teflon) while inspiring a new generation of engineers and scientists.

An ambitious space program can deliver worldview-shifting discoveries, revolutionary new technologies, vast new resources, inspiration for a new generation of scientists and engineers, and the chance to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs ... and when does the media speak breathlessly about any of those benefits of an active space program?

Wouldn't it be nice if the media obsessed less about anniversaries and lasts, and focused instead -- for a change -- on possible new firsts in space?


Erik said...

Space elevator!

Unknown said...

Part of the problem is that the general public (not us geeky-folk) don't care.

I have a 'friend' (mom of one of my son's friends) who honestly did not KNOW that we haven't been back to the moon. And the same woman, whose husband is a radiology tech, asked me what benefit anyone ever got out of the space program. (you know like that shiny MRI machine her husband makes his living using?)

Perhaps if the news were covering the new and exciting discoveries - it would touch these people but, how do we get past apathy?

On the plus side - her daughter got a big schooling in Space Ship One and the future of commercial space from my very enthusiastic son.

Edward M. Lerner said...

I agree that much of the public doesn't care. The chicken-and-egg question is this: does the media limit its coverage of space activities because of public indifference, or is the public indifferent because of limited (and generally misdirected) coverage?

- Ed