A World Without NASA

After waiting out a thunderstorm, NASA’s Lunar...

Image via Wikipedia

If we don’t act quickly, we’ll get to stand on the sidelines while other countries compete for the top spot in the upcoming space race.

All the President and Congress did with Constellation was delete five years of progress and spend a year changing the name of the program.  If you don’t want to call it “Constellation” because it’s a nasty Bush program, then fine.  Call it “The Obama Rocket” if you want, I don’t care.  Just stop designing it and start flying it.  Many folks think that Constellation’s biggest problem was a lack of funding, which then caused the cost overruns and delayed schedule that caused it to get cancelled.  Now we’ve spent a year deciding to start all over again and build essensially the same system with even less time, a mushier schedule, and an even smaller budget.

One step forward…two steps back.

Folks say we’ve already been to the moon, that that’s old news.  It is old news, old science, because we never went back.  Now we seem to have moved it totally off the radar and the Chinese will do the new manned lunar science while we stick with the old.  If there are any financial returns that come from that new science, we’ll have to buy those products from China.  If we come to rely on any of those innovations, we’ll be left dependent on China for them.

Full Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamois).

Made in China? (Image via Wikipedia)

The only real manned space exploration science our country will do for a very long time will now be Internationally driven, tethered to Earth orbit, and either forign or commercially launched.  I think all of that is great…except for the “only” part.  Leader’s don’t stand on the side of the pool and dip their toe in.  Our astronauts will get to live and work on the ISS as they watch heavy lift rockets from other countries fly other people past them, enroute to the moon and other places, while our next manned, inter-planetary exploration missions sit on the drawing boards.

Robotic missions get better all the time and they produce more science for the buck.  But it takes many years to design a robot to answer one level of questions then fly the robot out to do the science, and then spend many more years designing and flying the next robot to answer the next level of questions.  Humans on the spot do the science much faster and while there are things that robots do better than people, there are also many more things that people do better than robots.

There is also much less general human interest in sending a computer to do a man’s (or a woman’s) job.   Most robotic probe work takes place behind the scenes, doing geeky things that , for the most part, only space geeks like me enjoy watching.  Most young people won’t sit at their computers and dream of sending commands to a robot as it walks on Mars.  Boots with human feet in them, leaving boot prints in off-world soil, inspire the next generation of feet to make their own mark.  That’s what yesterday’s Apollo missions did to help build today’s generation of scientists and science enthusiasts.  Televised, professional football inspires little-league and highschool football players to apply themselves and succeed.  It works the same way with science.

Soon, foreign countries and commercial space will fill all the manned Earth-orbiting roles, NASA‘s robots will do all that robots can do, and our children will give up on us and envision themselves doing other things.  Then where will NASA go?

So we’re squeezing the life out of NASA.  It’s only a matter of time.

It all hinges on public interest.  Neither NASA nor commercial space ventures can exist without it.  How many people click on the ‘Technology‘ section of online news websites?  How many space related headlines, or even articles, do we see in the newspapers?

Science fiction entertainment like my book, with action and conflict in them, or the things that touch peoples’ lives directly, like GPS or satellite TV, seem to be all that interests most folks when it comes to space—and that’s actually very short-sighted and sad.

Lots of folks heard about LCROSS because they saw it as an act of violence.  LCROSS made this itty bitty impact crater on the surface of the moon, but made a huge impact on public awareness here on Earth.  Why?  Because it was violent.  If NASA punched a hole in something like that every day, they’d get the headlines every day, but most science doesn’t work like that and folks turn the page to the next who-murdered-who story to get their fix.

How many people know the hundreds of ways that scientific advances indirectly derived from NASA impact our lives?

Cassini mosaic of Iapetus, showing the bright ...

Who am I? Click for the answer. (Image via Wikipedia)

How many people know about the Cassini probe, or LRO, or STEREO?  The scientists of Earth recently landed a probe, gently, on the surface of a moon far away from here.  How many folks can tell me off the top of their head the name of that probe, or the moon it landed on, or what we learned from it?  How many reporters in the news media can tell me those things cold—without researching them?  If we stay on the plan we are following today, then that kind of science will be most of NASA’s near future, and hardly anyone knows anything about it.  NASA gets its funding from the public and if the public looses interest in it it will die.

In my book that’s what happens to NASA.  The public decides that it doesn’t care about NASA anymore and it goes away.

Sometimes science fiction predicts the future, sometimes it doesn’t.

Which will it be this time?

~ by Bill Housley on October 20, 2010.

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