Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Spaced Out

There’s been more talk from NASA and other sources about returning to the moon and going on to Mars. This, of course, following Bush’s announcement of a program to do just that earlier this year. The most recent discussion is about setting up a permanent lunar base (CNN story), and scientists are getting all excited about this, but calling for less lunar exploration and a stronger push toward Mars (another CNN story).

The last mission to the moon happened the year I was born. Space exploration is in my blood. I used to sneak up late at night to watch reruns of Star Trek on my grainy, rabbit-eared TV. I think I’ve seen every sci fi movie ever made (except some of the old black and white Flash Gordon sorts). I still thrill at news about the shuttle missions, like the one that just landed, and keep up on the news. Yes, it’s in my blood. If I pass gas, it’s likely to be solar wind.

But when Bush made his announcement, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Yeah, right! Can you spell d-i-v-e-r-s-i-o-n?” If he were serious about going to the moon and Mars, he wouldn’t cut NASA’s budget even more while continuing to expend the nation’s debt on the war in Iraq. The last time we went to the moon, we spent something like a quarter of the gross national product on the effort. No way that’ll happen now. I refuse to get my hopes up, since Bush isn’t serious about it, the Democrats are more interested in spending money on the social good (for good reason), and further presidents and Congresses aren’t likely to stay focused on the goal for that long (the goal is to be on the moon by 2020).

Lately, the celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking took it one step further. Like me, Hawking is a Trekkie. He even appeared as himself in an episode of _Star Trek: The Next Generation_, playing poker with Data, Einstein, and Newton. This month, Hawking gave a speech as he accepted the Royal Society Copley Award, the highest science honor in Britain (also given to Darwin, Faraday, and Captain Cook), for his contributions toward understanding gravity. Speaking in that trademark computer voice of his, he called for us to develop a Star Trek-like warp drive so that we could travel to distant stars, colonize planets, and preserve the human race against global catastrophes like asteroids, nuclear war, or global warming. He thinks it’s theoretically possible (though certainly far-fetched), and he ought to know. He also expressed a desire to be a space tourist. Can’t you just picture it? Hawking floating around in a space station, sans wheelchair?

Cool. The geeky teenager in me is smiling broadly. Now I’m jazzed. After all, who are you going to listen to more on this issue, a president with a failed domestic and foreign agenda who is likely creating yet another diversion tactic to draw our minds away from those failures, or a renowned scientist on par with Einstein, Newton, and Darwin who is hot on the trail of a Unified Theory of Everything despite being able to move only a single finger? Is there any way to name Stephen Hawking as Director of NASA?

Let’s just hope we’ve solved our earthly problems before we start spreading them across the galaxy, eh? That’s the future portrayed by Star Trek, after all.


Brian Dunbar said...

The last time we went to the moon, we spent something like a quarter of the gross national product on the effort.

More like 0.8 percent per year. See http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/augustine/racfup2.htm

I don't look the government to get us to space. It's up to us to drag them kicking and screaming into the next century.

This is not new - historically the US government has been content to stay at home. They had to follow the people as they migrated West - it was catch up and provide services or loose them to break away Republics and Free States.

Astroprof said...

Like Brian said, it was less than 1% of the GNP, but money well spent, I believe.

I'd really like to see us go back to the Moon, but the government does not have the will to do it. They can talk all they want about it, but the reality is that it costs money, and they don't want to spend the money. There aren't any voters on the Moon. And if you want to please people to get votes, you get more bang for you buck by hiring a bunch of people to sit in the Social Security Office all day doing nothing. Also, going to the Moon takes a long term commitment. Right now, Washington is so partisan that anything that one party suggests, no matter how good, will be violently opposed by the other party. When administrations change, when Congress changes, all the old programs go away. In that environment, we'll never get anywhere.

What we need to do is to have more support for a private Moon effort. That's the only way the US will get back to the Moon. I fear that other countries will beat us back the way it is going.