The Space Program

Apparently, some of our old NASA heroes are upset at the President’s cancellation of Bush’s project to return Americans to the moon. The space program and its policy are areas that I just haven’t kept up on in a little over 10 years, so I may make some errors in the following.

First, let me note the apparent irony that the Bush administration wanted the government to send us to the moon and Obama wants more private industry involved. Its only an apparent irony, because Republicans are for all the big government you can handle when it relates to defense contractors, who are exactly the people that get the contracts for the space program. The Democrats not agreeing is only a relatively new phenomenon, and is far from universal.

Anyway, back at it. I understand that there are a lot of good arguments, especially from budget wonks, that the space program is a boondoggle, is wasteful, and that we can do a lot more with unmanned probes. Still, I think that Neil Armstrong is a name that will outlast all others of the 20th century. I think it’s that big of a deal. The earth may one day entirely erase human civilization from its surface, but the cold vacuum of the moon will house the remnants of the Apollo landings for millions, if not billions, of years yet.

Even if it’s not that significant, it is still the most significant non-military (or even just quasi-military) event in the 20th century. There is something hopeful, unifying, and futuristic about humans on the moon, something that serves as a counterpoint to the specter of nuclear destruction that clouded the last half of the 20th century and the climate disaster that shades the 21st. There were untold benefits of practical application that derived from the space program, benefits that accrued to the general weal. How many children got interested in science because of Apollo? Sure, some kids were stoked on the Space Shuttle or the unmanned probes, but is it the same?

The idea that as a society we should have a massive non-military project that can achieve results of historical proportions, that, in the mean time will inevitably excite a generation into the sciences and leave behind numerous new useful inventions in its wake, is something worthy of a boondoggle or two. I think there was a cultural zeitgeist in the 90s that surrounded the yearning and belief that with (apparently) our internecine conflicts behind us, we were ready to take the next step, out into the universe, and, possibly to confront intelligent life from other worlds. That has certainly fallen apart, but it could certainly be reinvigorated by finally pulling off a manned mission to Mars, or even a return to the moon.

Plus, one day we will really need to get together and get off this rock (especially if we continue to abuse it so), or the ancient debris of the Apollo project really be all that’s left of us.