The space program pays off benefits that can’t be counted in dollars.
The other day, China landed a rover on the moon.
Over a year ago, I climbed onto the roof of my building today to watch the fly-by of the Space Shuttle Enterprise atop a 747, for its final air voyage before it becomes a museum piece on the deck of the USS Intrepid. I remember the sense of wonder, a tickle in the gut, when I watched the first space shuttle launch of the Columbia. I recall the emptiness when the Challenger exploded over the ocean. And worse, when we later learned it was avoidable, and that they burned up in the shuttle’s slow death spiral into the sea.
I had another sense of loss, seeing the iconic shuttle fly for the last time. I know the space program will go on, but the shuttles were like what a car maker calls a “halo vehicle,” a money-loser that drives other sales. The Dodge Viper never makes money, but those who can’t afford it might buy a sporty, affordable car from Dodge. The shuttle may have struggled to remain relevant, but it looked like what our dreams expected when we thought of futuristic space travel, and that made us interested in what NASA was doing. Even when the science was a little dubious, like when John Glenn flew up there to test zero gravity’s effects on an aged body. It was worth it to honor an aging astronaut, in my book. It kept the dream of space travel alive and real.
Will we watch the Orion launches with the same sense of wonder? I hope so. It’s a rocket based system. Not as sexy. I hope it will be much safer for the astronauts. We tend to think of the space program as a luxury, but I think President Kennedy was correct about its importance. We must dream big. We should not abandon our journeys to the stars.
The budget is not a zero sum game. Every space launch does not leave a child unprotected; while we wage war with impunity, we cannot point a finger of blame at the rocket taking humanity to Mars. I agree with the scientists who say that for humanity to survive longterm, we must expand beyond Earth. And I believe we can do this without abandoning our home, or thinking less of it. I am glad that countries other than the U.S. are still making moon landings, even with a rover. I am glad the U.S. put rovers on Mars. And having grown up during the Cold War, I am glad the fear of nuclear war has faded into near-impossibility. Sometimes I wonder if it will take fear as great as we experienced in the shadow of the mushroom cloud to drive us to support the spending required to make great technological advances.
–Photo NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr