Turning our backs on space, and ending the American century

With tomorrow’s launch of the Space Shuttle, the age of manned space exploration, after more than 50 years, will officially draw to a close in America. It’s a sad day, and I think that it speaks volumes concerning where we are as a country. The optimism that we once had as a nation is gone. It’s been replaced by a palpable undercurrent of anti-intellectualism and fear. We live in a society where Creationism theme parks are being built, and politicians who state their belief in the science of global climate change are being driven from office. The defunding of NASA is just the most recent salvo in the battle.

The following clip concerning our decreasing support of space research comes from KWCH Television:

…And a country once willing to put 4 cents out of every federal dollar into NASA now spends about a half-cent, as America struggles with more-earthbound concerns such as job losses and health care.

“After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent,” wrote Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan in an op-ed this spring…

And things are getting worse, with the House Appropriations Committee calling $1.6 billion in cuts from NASA’s FY 2012 budget. This, among other things, would kill the James Webb Space Telescope, which, according to an article in the New York Times, was “designed to study the first stars and galaxies that emerged in the first hundred million years or so after the Big Bang.” (Who, after all, needs a tool to give us more inconvenient facts when we already know from the Bible that the Earth is only 6,000 years old?) Here’s a clip from the article:

…Astronomers reacted with immediate dismay, fearing that the death of the Webb telescope could have the same dire impact on American astronomy that killing the Superconducting Supercollider, a giant particle accelerator in Texas, did in 1993 for American physics, sending leadership abroad.

Canceling the Webb telescope would “have a profound impact on astrophysics far into the future, threatening U.S. leadership in space science,” said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which would run the new telescope. “This is particularly disappointing at a time when the nation is struggling to inspire students to take up science and engineering,” he added…

By way of comparison, it’s worth noting that the $1.6 billion in proposed cuts to the NASA budget is approximately what we, the U.S. taxpayers, pay every five days to keep the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan going.

It’s also worth noting, I think, that NASA will continue to exist as an entity capable of delivering corporate and military satellites to space. So, it’s just the stuff that really matters that we’re eliminating – the stuff that would help us to unravel the mysteries of the universe, and discover other habitable planets.

There is good news, though… The rich will have their tax cuts.

This, for those of you who are interested, is what it looks like when the Dark Ages begin to take hold.

Here, for those of you who weren’t alive at the time, is audio from a better time, when Democratic Presidents had big ideas, and weren’t afraid to fight for science and education.

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16 Comments

  1. Moon Man
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry Mark, but the space program was never about the fight for “science and education.” Listen to JFK’s speech. It was sold as being about war. It was about winning “the battle between freedom and tyranny” through “mastery of space.”

    And, as it happens, it provided huge contracts to industries like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

    Not to worry, I’m sure that as these companies develop new technologies to find and destroy our current threats to freedom, there will be many commercial spin-offs we can’t live without.

    You are right to correlate the cuts to NASA to spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. But this doesn’t reflect a shift in American ideals. It just reflects a shift in fears. Oddly, the same companies are getting the contracts. At least some things never change…

  2. Edward
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken the creationism-themed amusement park in Kentucky is being build, at least in part, with tax payer dollars.

  3. Burt Reynolds
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I’ve never understood the point of space travel. Sure there is the possibility of finding inhabitable planets, but that doesnt seem to be even close to a reality. Can someone tell me what we as normal everyday working folk have ever gained from space exploration? I dont mean that in a snide way. I am seriously asking the question. I have no idea. Seemed like a huge waste of money that I would rather see poured into something like medical research.

  4. Mr. X
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Lots of technology has come from the space program. Everything from solar cells to the micro accelerometers that control the air bags in your car. (And let’s not forget computers.) As for habitable planets, we already know of one. It’s Mars. There are others as well. We just need to find ways to get to them. And we eventually have to, if our species is to survive. (Not to bring everyone down this beautiful Friday morning, but our sun won’t last forever.)

    As for the military origins of the space program, I’d absolutely agree. I do believe that it was about more than that, though. Or at least it evolved to be about more than that. It was about having heroes that weren’t movie stars and sports figures. It was about doing great things that had never been done before. It was about testing the limits of our ability.

  5. Gene
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I think it’s better if we humans just stay on this planet, we don’t need to ruin other ones as well.

    Has anyone seen Wall-E? Love that movie. In the opening, our outer atmosphere is littered with space junk.

    I get a kick when the astronauts in the International Space Station have to scurry to the escape pod every time a dime size piece of junk heads towards the station. We really should limit our litter and polution to at least our own solar system and leave the rest alone.

  6. Kim
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    A big part of me believes that our species should die on this little, once-blue marble of ours. I hate the idea that we could drain a planet of its resources, or otherwise kill it, and then move on to another planet, to do it all over again. On the other hand, I look at some of the truly great things that we humans have accomplished, and I want to keep going. Regardless of where you stand on the colonization of space, though, I think it’s hard to disagree with the premiss of this post, which is that the defunding of NASA reflects both an anti-intellectual trend in America, and a decision on the part of the wealthy to stop participating in such civil undertakings.

  7. Posted July 8, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I’m not particularly familiar with this issue, but I’ve read that the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle would be followed by contracting space runs out to private companies.

    Also, it’s an incredible stretch to suggest that anything that we do could in the least way affect anything in the rest of the universe.

  8. Posted July 8, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I think that I disagree that this is part of a (very real) trend of anti-intellectualism in the US. I would like to agree, but I don’t in this case, given what I’ve read….

    I have to say that I’m really sensitive to anti-intellectualism. Don’t misread me.

    As far as I’ve read, the defunding of NASA seems to have more to do with the fact that many of the industries and technologies that NASA was originally intended to kickstart are now mature enough to stand on their own.

  9. Meta
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Some incredible footage of what we know so far about the universe.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17jymDn0W6U

  10. kjc
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Right on Moon Man.

  11. Glen S.
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I was visiting my brother the other day (he lives in semi-rural Monroe County, just south of here) and he was telling me how their local Road Commission — claiming they no longer have adequate funding to properly maintain many local roads — has decided to chip up the surface, and let them return to “gravel.”

    I also saw a story the other day about the new Bay Bridge they are building in California, and how much of the engineering work for that project, as well as much of cast iron and concrete “pieces” of the bridge, were outsourced to China — since, apparently, it was difficult to find American companies who guarantee they could do this work within time and budget limits.

    And, today, we’re witnessing the last Space Shuttle launch — in what is very likely the end of an era for U.S. manned space exploration and discovery.

    These things may seem unrelated, but my point is this: From the mid-19th Century until late in the 20th Century, the U.S. built railroads, highways, ports and great public buildings (not to mention an entire Space Program) that were the envy of the world. Nobody built more, better, or faster than we did … and the jobs and industry these projects sparked (in mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation, etc.) created unprecedented wealth and prosperity for literally millions of ordinary American citizens.

    Yet, today, in both Lansing and Washington, 90% of the political “debate” is not about what we’re going to “build, develop, create,” etc., but rather — what (and how much) we’re going “cut, slash, eliminate.”

    I know we live in a world of limits (natural resources, and in particular, oil), so perhaps the kinds of big-ticket, energy-intensive projects we’ve done in the past are no longer realistic. But, I think we still need some kind of big, bold goals (the next generation of innovation in energy, agriculture, etc.) — both to inspire future generations, and to create new jobs to replace existing “legacy” industries.

    Right now, America’s so-called leaders seem to have no vision whatsoever — aside from continually cutting taxes on the super-wealthy and major corporations — while simultaneously abiding the slow dismantling (through neglect) or selling off (through outsourcing) of what so many Americans worked so hard to build over the last 100 – 150 years.

    Sad to say it, but I see the end of the manned space program as just one more symptom of this overall “malaise” … just another example of what we, as a nation,”used to be,” and what we “used to be able to do.”

  12. Posted July 9, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    @Burt Reynolds – I suggest you already know the answers, which is why you phrase your question so –

    Can someone tell me what we as normal everyday working folk have ever gained from space exploration?… Seemed like a huge waste of money that I would rather see poured into something like medical research.

    A quick google for medical spinoffs from space flight finds such things as radiation therapy for cancer, pacemakers and artificial hearts, CAT scans and MRIs, kidney dialysis machines, microsurgery for eyes and brains, memory metal alloys for orthodontia and eyeglasses, laser angioplasty, hormone replacement therapy, artificial limbs, and medical telemetry for ambulance and ICU patient monitoring.

    I tried to avoid NASA websites when making that list and only use third party sources, though obviously all those will have been informed by NASA materials. Also, it’s understood that some of these originated out of spaceflight research while others existed previously and were only improved by it.

    So, if we’re looking at just medical benefits, the above list should be a decent start to show value. Is the space shuttle program expensive? Sure. (NPR at this moment is telling me $200B in 2010 dollars.) Has it been “worth it” purely in value of medical spin-offs? Hard to say in the span of a comment, but I’d say the above list starts to make a good case.

  13. TaterSalad
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Looks like ya’ alls “Boy President” just might be going down!

    A Congressman Confirms GOP is Talking Impeachment:

    http://tpartyus2010.ning.com/profiles/blogs/videos-2-a-congressman

  14. Neil deGrasse Tyson
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I heard what you were talking about.

    http://i.imgur.com/t0WyY.png

  15. Elf
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Appropriate.

    http://i.imgur.com/QhE5V.jpg

  16. ceiling fan
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    We may have lost space, but we’re gaining abstinence only education!

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