Editor’s Note: This article, which I didn’t write, was published in The Stamford Advocate, and caused me to write an op-ed in response. The author, Bill Collins, a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut, runs Minutemanmedia, which syndicates liberal-leaning opinion pieces. Bill has gotten a couple of my articles printed nationwide, and, because we tend to think alike politically (and he’s a great guy), I never expected to write something contradicting him. However, the advancement of science, and particularly the space program, is something I feel pretty strongly about. For many years, we played basketball together on Saturday mornings in Norwalk, where he perfected a patented move to the basket that left faster and more-athletic guys whiffing at the ball, when they were sure they were going to block it into the next county.
— By William Collins
The United States has never fully subscribed to the Roman policy of providing its citizens with bread and circuses. The bread is just too expensive. Besides, poor people should be self-reliant enough to earn their own bread.
Circuses, though — they’re different. They distract attention from governmental disorders that voters might not be so thrilled with. Say, wars, or ruining the environment, or corporate boondoggles.
And the greatest of these circuses is has been the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It began in response to the embarrassment of the Soviet Union putting up the first satellite. From there the agency went ballistic. We needed our own satellites, of course; we needed people out there in space; we needed rockets to the moon, to Mars, to Venus, to Mercury, to Jupiter, etc. Then we needed to get human explorers to the moon (and back).
In pursuing these goals, NASA has been a brilliant, if costly, technological triumph of entertainment. It has been worth its weight in public relations to all administrations many times over. Astronauts have morphed into folk heroes (or martyrs), and the Kennedy Space Center has grown into a serious tourist mecca. We love watching the pyrotechnic launches on TV and the suspense-laden re-entries with lost heat-shield tiles.
Yes, space was great theater for a while, but the public has at last grown jaded. It’s hard to excite fantasies with images of astronauts repairing toilets, or chasing lost grease guns. We might thrill, alternatively, at the Mars Rover driving seven miles to reach a giant crater, but that trip will last at least two years. This takes a little of the edge off the intoxication.
In fact, the whole edginess of space is pretty much gone by now. We’ve already been wherever we wanted to go, and the inconvenient limits of physics prevent us from sending our heroes anywhere beyond. Machines, yes! People, no! Nonetheless, public craving assured that we would do something, so we ended up with the anomaly of a pointless space station. The station’s main purpose seems to be to provide jobs for astronauts to fly to and from, while the main purpose of the astronauts is to keep the space station operable so that they’ll have jobs. This, of course, is in addition to the political purpose of staging an ongoing circus for the media and for the public. But unfortunately for NASA, the public’s waning excitement is now much like that for SUVs.
Ironically, the whole NASA operation is also beginning to act more and more like the Pentagon. Headlines in Connecticut now revolve around which lucky companies are likely to get the juicy production contracts. Will Hamilton Sundstrand win the coveted space-suit deal or will it go “out of state?” It sounds an awful lot like those tasty jet engine contracts for the Air Force. So what if they have no valid use? They bring profit and jobs.
Or take NASA’s latest $15.4 million device for turning urine and sweat into drinking waters. Lots of commercial uses for that! On our own time, many of us have already developed a system for converting rum into urine, for no cost at all.
It’s time, frankly, to cut way back on NASA. No more astronauts, please. Been there, done that. But keep those unmanned probes going to Pluto, the asteroids, Mercury and the great beyond. Hire the Russians to repair the Hubble Telescope, but leave the ego-driven spacewalking to the Chinese and the Indians. They need to show the world they’re competent. We don’t.
Instead, let’s save the money. We could use it just now. Thank the Russians for offering us seats on their shuttle, but let them know we’re getting out of that business. Focus NASA on basic science out in the galaxies, but leave the circus performers here at home. In a time of cutbacks, they’re the perfect place to start snipping.
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