Early one morning, I was shaken out of my hotel cot and shuffled out the door into the already-hot greater Orlando air. From my place on the hotel balcony, I watched as a space shuttle blasted into orbit dozens of miles away, a small dot on a fierce white plume.
Forget Mickey—for me, at age 10, this was a highlight of my trip to Disney World in spring of 1991. It’s not hard to imagine that some other third-grader on summer vacation will be standing on some other balcony this morning, watching with excitement the last space shuttle launch he’ll ever see.
My story isn’t particularly interesting and it’s far from unique, but that’s the point—everyone has a space story. Maybe it’s where they were when men landed on the moon, or when the Challenger or Columbia disasters happened. Maybe it’s getting to meet an astronaut such as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or one of the Mercury Seven.
Those stories feel like they come to an end today, though NASA will continue with plans for unmanned missions and to send astronauts to orbit in Russian spacecraft (The line starts here! Anyone? Anyone?) and on still-very-in-development commercial ventures. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re about to lose something. Maybe for good, but I hope not.
Closer to home, on Thursday the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies passed a bill to end the James Webb space telescope project, which is partly handled by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. The Webb telescope was intended to be the successor to the Hubble space telescope, and would, among other things, connect “the big bang to our own Milky Way galaxy.”
This comes after President Obama last year cancelled the Constellation program, which had begun development on a new capsule and rocket capable of returning men to the moon. The president called for a new vehicle which could take astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars sometime in the 2030s, but critics doubted that those goals could be achieved by starting anew following a years-long layoff in human spaceflight.
So to recap: no new module program for the foreseeable future, no return to the moon, no baby steps toward Mars, and now we might not even get the super-space-telescope in the works when all those other things were cut.
While Atlantis remains aloft, the airwaves here on Earth will be filled with talk about what it all means, and some debate about whether going into space is even worthwhile at all with the down-to-earth issues facing the country.
To me, the debate is simple: to argue against spaceflight is to argue against the need for human progress. We did pretty well bashing each other over the heads with sticks for tens of thousands of years before someone decided to stop wandering around and started farming, why not just stick with that? Feel free to find a nearby cave and start drawing on the walls.
The idea was probably better said by Aaron Sorkin:
Spaceflight has brought all sorts of benefits you can easily Google up. My greatest hits include smoke detectors (first developed by Honeywell Inc. for use on Skylab), ICU patient monitoring devices (first used to monitor astronauts’ health) and, yes, that powdery orange substance that still tastes like water no matter how much powdery orange substance you add. The “they just bring back rocks and photos” crowd can pass your cell phones and car GPS units over to me, please.
Despite all those advances totally taken for granted in modern life, and despite President Obama’s pledge to increase NASA’s budget over the next few years, space money is a tempting target for any politician looking for points with the voters when there isn’t a victimized young girl off of whom they can spin a quick-hit bill. A program which may advance all of human understanding 14 years from now doesn’t mean very much when you need to get re-elected 14 months from now, a mentality that results in cuts like that of the Webb telescope.
And, in fact, NASA’s budget has never amounted to more than about 4.5 percent of the federal budget in any given year, including those during the space race. Over the last few years, it’s been more like two-thirds of a percent of the entire budget. Somewhere along the way, the U.S. government came up with $700 billion in a single shot to throw to some Wall Street firms to save them from their own greed. A fraction of that given instead to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and you’d be taking a flying car or a jetpack to work tomorrow.
Those far-fetched devices themselves are concepts from an era where the impossible was measured only in the number of years it would take to become possible. Astronauts raised on Bradbury and Clarke and Armstrong and Aldrin still think of these things, but the best it seems we can do is go back to the drawing board. Even then, those heading into orbit see some hope.
“I think that’s going to really bring the exploration back into the space program, and that’s what we need to do,” astronaut Rex Walheim, a member of the final space shuttle crew, told CNN. “Go visit an asteroid, the moon or Mars, and go to places we haven’t been before. Then, I think the really strong exploration piece of flying in space is going to come back.”
Preach on, Rex. His words struck me because I’d be willing to bet that most of the astronaut corps shares the feeling. These aren’t the kind of driven, laser-beam-focused people who joined NASA so they could dink around with some rover on a joystick. They wanted to drive the thing over a Martian dune themselves.
At some point you had to know I was going to trot out a sappy “one day I’ll have kids” hypothetical, so here it is: One day I might have a 10-year-old of my own, and one of them might ask me about how we went to the moon. And the next question will probably be, “Can I go to the moon?” Maybe I’ll let the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies field that one for me.
Or maybe the answer will be, “Sure! If you have $200,000.” (Or whatever inflation has done to that number in 20 years or so.) At the dawn of earthbound aviation, private industry played a key role in making air travel a part of modern life. Commercial spaceflight, however, is hideously more expensive than aviation ever was. It’s on the horizon following the successful flight of SpaceshipOne in 2004, but is still at least several more years in the future. Even then, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic tourist flights will only spend four minutes in what is technically “space.”
Getting beyond that in our lifetimes still requires NASA to take the leading role it claims it will play. Assuming we can create the new vehicles and technology required despite scrapping a promising effort already underway. And if the political will of our leaders is focused on encouraging science, engineering and discovery, and not on first appeasing those who got them elected or appointed.
But hey, maybe the food pouch is half-full, not half-empty, and all those things will happen. If so, please, come and get me. I’ll be out back, mixing up some Tang and looking for a heavy stick.