Editor’s Note: This was written concurrent with the inauguration of President Obama. I didn’t really feel like doing anything overtly political during that momentous period, so, instead, I responded to an article I’d seen in several newspapers at the end of 2008. That article, which advocated a severe curtailing of NASA’s budget, was written by Bill Collins, whom I’d played basketball with for years during my youth. I agree with him on most things political, but this time I just couldn’t. I’m of the opinion that science is the most-important thing mankind does or ever will do, so anything that supports the advancement of science is worth doing, even when it’s sometimes expensive or dangerous.
Assuming we don’t destroy ourselves during the next century with WMDs or global warming, what will mankind be proud to have accomplished? It would be nice to think that among our achievements will be the exploration of the solar system.
In a column in the Stamford Advocate, syndicated columnist and former Norwalk mayor William Collins recently suggested cutting NASA’s budget, particularly for manned space flights. I seldom disagree with Mr. Collins (and hate to contradict someone who regularly faked me out of my Nikes on the basketball court); however, this time, the Mayor has tossed up an air ball.
Probably envisioning more-humanitarian uses for astronauts’ salaries, Collins’ heart is in the right place. As the Bush family leaves us with one last recession, this one heading toward a 1930s-style collapse, concern for the poor is understandable. However, as Jesus put it, “Ye have the poor always with you” [Matthew 26:11]. If mankind had waited for poverty to disappear before doing any exploring, we’d still believe the Earth was flat, and Columbus might have become a gondolier.
NASA’s $17.6 billion FY09 budget is a teardrop in the ocean, compared with GOP-era deficit spending, the bailouts already handed out, optional-war debt and run-of-the-mill Defense Dept. appropriations. With the Cold War long over, we continue spending more on defense than every other country in the word combined, and a substantial percentage of federal R&D goes toward military applications.
For example, the Air Force requires $63 billion for its new F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter, although none of our enemies has — or can afford to develop — an aircraft to match the F-15E, our current top-of-the-line fighter. Our government clearly loves overkill.
On its way out the White House door, the Bush administration awarded $700 billion to the same white-collar criminals and predatory bankers who had wrecked our economy in the first place. I’d rather spend all of NASA’s $17.6 billion to parachute Bernie Madoff onto the surface of Pluto than pay for another AIG executive retreat in St. Regis. And the automakers’ bailout request is likely to fund CEOs’ golden parachutes or, perhaps, upgrade their Gulfstream IVs to Gulfstream Vs so that future flights to Washington to beg for additional corporate welfare will be a little less irksome.
In today’s economy, the Reagan-era slogan “greed is good” seems a tad less benign than it did when uttered by yuppie scum Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie “Wall Street.” In contrast, the space program is scientific advancement mainly for the joy of discovery, with little commercial gain, beyond Tang, Teflon and an overpriced gadget for turning urine into drinking water. We originally raced the Soviets to the Moon as part of the Cold War, but the ultimate return on investment was the thrill of the accomplishment.
Science for its own sake is one of mankind’s redeeming qualities. Playwright Jerome Lawrence’s defense of Darwin in “Inherit the Wind” could also be applied to NASA: “The advance of man’s knowledge is more of a miracle than any sticks turned to snakes, or the parting of waters. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse is stronger and swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, even the simple sponge is more durable.”
The U.S. space program integrates leading-edge technology with the scientific legacies of Copernicus, Newton and Einstein. We’ve retrieved minerals from the Moon; landed rovers on Mars; orbited spacecraft around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; dropped probes onto Venus, and maintain a telescope in space* that gathers images from billions of light years away — photographing events that occurred shortly after the Big Bang.
Like Darwin’s research, space exploration adds pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of our origins. The ancient creation myths —such as Genesis and the Rig Veda — are beautiful literature, but they’re religious mythology, not history or science. The scientific investigation of our beginnings is the bridge to our identity and a far more lofty goal than the myriad “Bridges to Nowhere” our legislators so regularly and eagerly vote to fund.
Libertarians quite sensibly oppose government involvement in areas the private sector could address, but the space program is too big even for Bill Gates to handle. If budget cutters want to feel good about eliminating extraneous line items, let them cut the relatively microscopic budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Poets and sculptors will go on creating without federal grants, but we’ll never walk on Mars without substantial government support.
History reveres the Sumerians for inventing cuneiform and beer, the Greeks for science and democracy, the Arabs for algebra, and the French for champagne and some of the world’s tastiest soft cheeses. It will be nice if America is remembered for more than the iPod and the cluster bomb.
* In the interests of full disclosure, the Perkin-Elmer Corp., which built the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), also paid my salary for 16 years, so I’m not an entirely disinterested party in this area.
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