January 20, 2004

When Did Space Exploration Become A Punchline?

To hear some Minnesota newspapers tell it, you'd think W's space exploration initiative is the biggest white elephant ever trotted out before the American public. I don't know; I actually think the initiative doesn't go far enough. Eight years to put a man back on the moon? What? Did NASA lose the Apollo 11 file or what?

Criminey, the Chinese will have tea houses on the moon before we even gas up the next Saturn V.

I'll admit it, I'm a dreamer. I buy into all the Star Trek crap (not the first one, mind you, that sucked; The Next Generation). I like to think that warp speed and transporters and tricorders are all just a given somewhere down the human evolutionary line. I'm a sucker for shit like that.

Yeah, yeah, I know: I can already hear the voices of those masses groaning that space exploration, at least government funded space exploration, is a drain on the money that should rightfully go towards feeding the hungry, and putting handicapped children on the road to recovery, and whatever other reason you can dream up that sounds great on paper but in reality is just as crazy-sounding as any long-term plan for space exploration. As James Lileks wrote so appropriately recently:

It just strikes me as the same old provincial jibe I dimly recall from the Apollo era: why are we going to the Moon when there are so many problems here? . . . Some are steamed because the Hubble?s been tanked ahead of schedule, and I?m not pleased about that either. But you could say that every dollar spent on the Hubble thus far could have gone towards Toles? crudely drawn paralyzed girl. Would the artist insist we had never sent the observatory in the first place, then? For that matter: there were paralyzed children in the 60s. Would Toles have preferred that the government shut down the Apollo program and throw all the millions into spinal-cord regeneration research? . . . France isn?t going to the moon. What stops them from curing spinal-cord injuries? Germany isn?t going to the moon. What stops them from curing spinal-cord injuries? Britain isn?t going to the moon. What stops them from curing spinal-cord injuries? And so forth. It?s not a zero-sum game; America is not the world. But America is best suited to leave this world for another. If that idea leaves you cold, fine.

Look, I'm not disputing the fact that NASA is rapidly reaching the end of its usefulness. If there were viable business sector alternatives to catapulting a person into space, I'd be all for that as well. I could care less whether the sending body is the U.S.A. or IBM, just so long as there's a sending body.

I guess it's just a matter of where one's vision lies. Some people see the poverty of America and believe that should be addressed first before gallavanting off to the stars. That's nice and noble, I suppose, if not entirely, and inherently, impossible. But that's a different topic all together.

I wasn't even born when man first stepped foot on the moon, and frankly I'm a little astonished that there aren't people living there, or at least travelling there routinely, all these many years later. I grew up on pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on that icy orb, but those pictures haven't been updated since. That saddens me. Human curiousity, interrupted.

I see all these pictures streaming back from Mars and I think, "Wow!" And then I think how much I wish I could be there, if for no other reason but to leave my footprints on that rusty surface. To say, "We've been here, and we'll be back, because we're human and that's what we do!"

I suppose we could just flinch at the danger of space travel and continue sending machines that take 14 minutes or so to receive the commands issued by their human controllers rooted here on earth. Sure, machines could do that, I suppose, into perpetuity. It's nice and safe. And it totally flies in the face of everything adventurous in the human soul. A machine just does things, it doesn't experience those things. A machine can load up a soil sample and cook it and calculate whether there's water there; it can't run the soil through its hands and just marvel at it, and ache out of pure joy at being able to be there, simply touching that alien surface. A machine can't stand on Mars and then look up at the Martian sky, point to the brightest star on the horizon, and say "that's next."

Again, as Lileks said: I can?t shake the suspicion that we were put here to leave.

Or, I suppose you could take the Dave Barry route: We don't NEED to send people to Mars. We can just ask Michael (Jackson) what it's like.

Posted by Ryan at January 20, 2004 10:31 AM
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