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Friday, April 16, 2010

One Giant Leap

On May 25, 1961, Democratic President Kennedy issued a bold mandate—that the United States would send a human being to the moon by the end of that decade. 8 years 1 month and 26 days later, it was done. This was zero to hero in less time than it takes to boil a really big egg. In 1961 we knew basically nothing…at all…about space flight. There were still people working at NASA that thought space was full of sea monsters. (I made that up.) Only two percent of American households had color televisions, and our most sophisticated computational device was a slide ruler. But, we did it. A bunch of dudes with 50lb brains teamed up with a handful of dudes with 50lb balls and they just made it happen. At the end of 2010, the United States of America, for the first time in over 50 years, will not have the capability to send a single person into space—not even low-Earth-orbit. What happened?

We Americans used to get up to all kinds of crazy adventures. We explored everything. The English were kind enough to drop us off on the eastern edge of a really big hunk of dirt with no one on it. Well, there were Indians, but they just had sticks and we had guns, so it’s just as good to say there was no one here. Once early Americans figured out that there were far too many liberals on the East Coast, they explored west. Nothing could stop us. If it was wet, we forded it, or dried it up. If it was in the way, we went over it, around it, or moved it. If it was hostile, we shot it, cooked it, and ate it (or pushed it westward and onto a reservation). Exploration was in our blood--handed down to us from the explorers of Europe who were basically willing to sail a vessel of pretty much any size as far into the unknown as possible, and never return. (Long live the queen!)

When we got bored walking around in circles between the two oceans, we just looked up. When JFK said we were going to the moon, we were like fuck yeah! We worked really hard, bought a used spaceship from an Alien (at least that’s what a couple of websites suggest), loaded up a couple of dudes who really wanted to die very far away from home, and we were off. (We also sent them with bananas so that their potassium levels would not drop. No one wants cramps in space) After we planted a few flags on the moon, played some golf, stole some rocks and did some off-roading, we basically just got bored with it and quit. Let me say that again: We got bored going to the moon. There is no amount of internet porn that can fix that.

The easy out is to blame the President. You thought I was going to didn’t you! Which president? NASA’s budget has steadily decreased (in terms of % of federal budget) under every sitting president since Kennedy. The 2010 budget for space exploration is 10% of what it was 1966. Blame NASA? Maybe a little, but how boldly can you go when your pocket book will only send you where everyone’s gone before? NASA’s operating kitty is 9.7% of the aggregate budget for social programs at the federal level, and only 2% of the leviathan that is the DoD Benny Hill. What about Congress? Congress writes the budget. Yeah, but congress does what it always has: get itself re-elected. Congress chases the whims and trends of the populace, and the populace of the U.S. seems to be about as interested in space travel as Schrodinger was interested in feline welfare.

Unfortunately, the exploration of space has been a shrinking interest with Americans since the first few Space Shuttle flights. You could argue back and forth ad nauseum whether the tail is wagging the dog: Did NASA fail to inspire? Did they run the shuttle program too long without anything new and different? Or, did the public just chase a different shiny penny no matter what NASA served up? I’d say both. Upon encounter of a mirage of vision and leadership, people will drink the sand. While NASA has languished away in LOE, the American taxpayer has, over the decades, turned their attention towards plebeian pursuits of entertainment. But, I think they could be inspired to get behind the space program, once again, and with vigor. All they need is our new Democratic President to mandate something bold and nonpareilly American!

President Obama outlined his bold way-ahead for NASA on 15 April, 2010:
"By the mid-2030s I believe we can send people to orbit Mars and bring them safely back to Earth. I expect to be around to see it."

Hopefully, 20 some-odd years from now, mankind might accomplish something within today’s technological and financial capability—to visit a place we’ve already been sending surface spacecraft for 30 years. My grandchildren might get to witness an endeavor that my children should have read about in high school history class. I’m sure there will be a Chinese flag waiting for us at the foot of Olympus Mons.

©Raymond Smith- 2010

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