I was told there’d be moon colonies

“Glow-in-the-Dark Plants are Highlight of International Space Station Science Briefing” reads my latest email alert from NASA.  And we’re de-funding this agency, why?

After decades of war and depression (the money kind), Americans needed something to rally around in the 1950s, and the answer was space flight (and polio vaccines). If for no other reason than to smite the Soviets, Americans enthusiastically pursued the once-impossible goal of flying to the moon. The moon moon, that everyone sees every night from everywhere around the world. People’s minds were literally (ok, maybe figuratively) blown forty years ago when man walked on the moon, which actually happened, despite what that guy who hangs around outside Union Station says. And on that day, our dreams of one day living on the moon–after we’d drained every last resource our planet had to offer and salted the earth for good measure–were born.

But those dreams were effectively dashed when President Obama’s budget came out on Monday. In it was a paltry (ok, ungainly in real-people terms, but we’re talking interstellar travel here) $6 billion over five years for NASA to oversee the development and construction of commercial space vehicles. For the first time since its inception, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is taking a back seat, not the cutting edge, on space exploration.  

Of the many and varied programs the federal government takes my money away to fund, I object to NASA the least. I do admit, it’s odd that I am such an ardent supporter of one of the most massive bureaucracies our government has to offer. Even odder that the agency’s scaling-back was initiated not by a waste-conscious Republican (it was former president George W. Bush who challenged NASA to “gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own” in 2004 [and it was another Bush that said “The future lies in space travel”]) but a progressive Democrat. But space travel falls into one of those special categories, like national defense (and in fact, our research into space has regularly improved our defensive capabilities), that I believe are best suited to government spearheading.

First of all, barriers to entry into the space travel market are huge. Unlike air travel, which relied on a few physical principles and benefitted from the input of countless individual pioneers, the principles of space travel are prohibitively complex and expensive. What few commercial space travel outfits exist are funded by billionaires like Richard Branson, with little hope that small startups or even moderately sized aviation firms could join the fledgling industry at present. Deregulation that allowed for the birth of the commercial satellite industry was surely a step in the non-governmental direction, but while the technologies are in the same general ballpark, telecom satellites and trips to the moon are apples and oranges.

Second, privatization of space travel eliminates the patriotic component that drove scientific innovation in the first place. Government-sponsored projects aimed to beat the Ruskis, and the accountability for success was to the taxpayer, not private investors. If it turns into something like the military industrial complex, where private developers compete for government contracts and thus improve the overall quality and cost of each project, I would be on board. But if budget cuts prove to be the death knell to NASA, I fear for what private space travel will mean for scientific and public innovation.

Most importantly, and perhaps most morbidly, when things like space shuttles explode, it’s a big deal. Bigger than when planes crash, even though shuttles are generally smaller, because they’re hurtling in from outside Earth’s atmosphere and rain fire and debris across hundreds of square miles. These are national tragedies, and as a nation we come together and mourn, take stock of our losses, and fix what went wrong. Private companies are not beholden to the public trust, and so when things go catastrophically wrong, we would become that much more likely to suffer through coverups, finger pointing, and shady back-door transactions. To be sure, a government agency is far from immune to this sort of behavior, but there is inherently zero transparency and accountability in private firms. Look no further than Wall Street, circa September 2008, if you don’t believe me (not that I believe government intervention was the answer there, but the analogy is ripe).

When the Kanamits came and promised they were going “To Serve Man,” all the naive little 1960s high-trousered earth people destroyed their civil defenses and greeted their visitors with open arms. Then the aliens ate them. I can only hope this step towards commercial space exploration does not leave our government powerless in the face of competition, terrestrial or otherwise.

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