Thursday, April 15, 2010

Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan Are Right to Criticize Obama on Space

I heard Dylan Ratigan and Arianna Huffington blithely say, on Ratigan's show on MSNBC this afternoon, that they supported Obama's cutback of some of the space program, including the Orion, Constellation and Ares I and V projects.   Ratigan and Huffington cited the same tired reason - the money is better spent here on Earth - a reason which, if JFK had adhered to, would have resulted in no people on the Moon, and little of what we've accomplished in space.

Obama's plan would actually increase the NASA budget by 8 billion dollars - but the plan would end the current Moon initiative, and replace it with a mixed bag of endeavors in which Mars was the most prominent goal, and robots rather than human beings would take the initiative for us in space.

Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, and Eugene Cernan think this is a bad idea.  The three sent a powerful letter to Obama, urging that he reconsider his policy, and pointing out its dangers.  The letter focuses on the damage such cutbacks will have on America as a world leader.   I would go even further, and stress the damage such a policy could have for Planet Earth, and we, its sentient inhabitants - cutting back the American space program would hurt the entire human race.  The truth is that what little we have accomplished in space since the 1960s and 1970s, in getting beyond this world out into the cosmos, is precious little.  If we lose more of the opportunity we have failed to build upon since our voyages to the Moon, we could be sentenced forever to living on this planet, and no place else.  As I pointed out in my 2003 book, RealSpace, this could well mean that we'll never know much more than we do right now out who we are, what we are doing here, about our place and role in this Universe.  These reasons transcend political, military, and even scientific benefits.   The deepest reasons for the human species to get beyond this planet are closer to spiritual.

Obama wants to stimulate a commercial space program - getting out into space financed by private enterprise - which is something I'm all in favor of.    Capitalism is a powerful mechanism, and one of the problems our space program has had thus far is that it has failed to attract sufficient private and corporate investment.

But cutting back on NASA is not the way to do this.  My online friend MPAndonee put it well, in his comment on the Huffington Post: "I voted for Obama, and am a big supporter of Health Care and many of the things he has tried to accomplish [but] I strongly disagree with the cancellation of the Orion, Constellation and Ares I and V. A strong commercial space industry would be great. But, until we get it, NASA is the only game in town."

What about the emphasis on robots in the Obama plan?  There's nothing wrong with robots, and they're preferable to humans on interstellar voyages in which there is no hope of safe or any return to Earth.  But for our own solar system - when was the last time you saw a robot come up with an original theory, an unexpected insight, an unlikely but brilliant connection of ideas and experiences?

What's wrong with a focus on Mars?   That's fine, as long as Mars doesn't come before the Moon.  The reason is simple arithmetic.   The Moon is about 240,000 miles from Earth, which means we can reach it physically in a few days, and communicate back and forth to it in seconds.   Mars various from a minimum of about 36 million to as far away as 250 million miles from Earth.   You do the math for transport and communication time at even the minimal distance.

Look at the birth dates of Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, and Eugene Cernan - 1930, 1928, 1934.  That should tell us something about how fast our voyages to the Moon are receding into history.  We're running out of time.   The last thing we need now in our long journey to find our place in the universe is a cutback of the most feasible next step.

14-min podcast about astronauts vs. Obama on space
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