Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NASA, Obama, and a use for this 'hope' malarky

As usual, SHEAm has scooped me in his quick round up of what's going on in the world and what's interesting. There are a few of his little news items that I had intended to write about, most importantly the NASA issue.

NASA- Tim noted that we had a bit of a heated discussion about this very topic last night. Which brings to mind a random tidbit - my new favorite restaurant is Fago de Chao! I had been before for private events, but really last night's dinner was great. And I think I've had enough meat to last me the rest of the year.

Anyway, though it might generally run counter to what one would expect from my ideology, I am a great proponent of expanding NASA funding. We are facing a virtually unprecedented financial crisis, have two wars draining what is left of our federal funds, etc. But given the great 'accidental' discoveries that have come out of our space program thus far and the general human instinct to explore and discover, I think it is vital that we continue to properly fund our space programs.

While I think one of the very few good things that Bush did was to reestablish some goals for our floundering space program: returning to the Moon and eventually a manned mission to Mars. Both are great goals and sound policy. However, instead of continuing to innovate and invest in new technologies, he insted directed NASA to virtually revert to the old Apollo system of single use vehicles. While I acknowledge the great flaws that were found in the shuttle program, let's also recognize that the shuttles are nearly 30 years old. Think just of the general technological shifts that have altered every day life in the last 30 years. Everything from our cars, to our phones (cell phones in general, let alone iPhones!), HD television, all digital TV, etc. Imagine the progress we could make with returnable/reusable vehicles if we properly invested.

The other great argument for this kind of ambitious reinvestment is the entire 'hope' or 'national pride' argument. While I was a very great skeptic of Obama's seemingly empty, useless promises of hope and change, here is an area where that can really matter. It has become cliche to reference JFK's pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's (a deadline we only barely maintained), but it really was a moment of intense national pride. Maybe without the spectre of the Soviet Union to really challenge and invigorate us we don't have the motivation to succeed, but I'm hoping this will change. To quote Jimmy Carter (whom I fear Obama may just emulate too much), we're in a bit of a national 'malaise'. A space program that does more than just send up telescopes and build a useless, out of date space station would be a great step toward reestablishing that national pride.

Regardless, I hope that President Obama follows through with his pledge to NASA and redirects some of the billions wasted in Iraq every month into the space program. Granted, there are many priorities (fighting unemployment, our disastrous health care system, our declining infrastructure, etc), but I sincerely hope to see progress on this front.


Emily said...

Correct me if I am wrong Morgan, but it sounds like you are not a proponent of the new Ares/Orion design.

I would just like to point out that the shuttles are almost 30 years old (STS-1 launched in 1981) and even though they are continually being updated, the machines are not safe. In fact, if you ask most astronauts, they were never safe from the beginning. A good book to read "Riding Rockets" by Mike Mullane who is a retired astronaut from the first class of shuttle astronauts. Anyway, he explains a lot of the issues with the shuttle, including how the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia could have both been prevented.

I do agree that NASA should be better funded. Many everyday items (water filters, cordless tools, invisible braces, just to name a few) that have become indispensable for some have been developed from the research and development that goes on at NASA. NASA fosters creativity and innovation that benefits all of society and this country, not just those interested in space.

Another point (which is just me rambling) is it would be nice to see space exploration increase national pride. In the beginning of the space program, Americans were glued to the TV watching lift-offs and the sort, now it is miraculous if a shuttle launch is even reported on CNN. But without the Cold War, there may be no impetus for national pride in space -- although if you ask me we should start racing the Chinese (I know we are light-years ahead of them, but they may come out of nowhere and completely dominate space one day)

Also, for anyone interested in the history of NASA, I recommend watching When We Left Earth, a discovery channel mini-series about the history of NASA. It is really informative and has a lot of unseen footage from NASA, plus interviews with former astronauts.

[sorry for my long rant and thoughts. I have rambled on and on for so long that I am not sure I even have a point]

Morgan said...

Hey Emily, thanks for the comments!

I'm not entirely against the Ares design -- in the short term. I just think that we shouldn't resign ourselves to only using the older model and give up on reusable launch vehicles.

I completely agree about the age of the shuttles -- in fact it's a point I made in my post. They were never perfect and didn't even really live up to their original promises. That said, we shouldn't give up on the idea behind the shuttle. It makes sense to me to reinvest and renew our efforts to make better shuttles.

And i agree with just about everything else you said :-)