Thursday, July 28, 2011

Space: The Abandoned Frontier?

Hi, I'm Sue. When I was in the 7th Grade, my parents sent me to Space Camp and it was one of the best weeks of my life. And I am an Anomaly.

As far back as I remember, I was fascinated by space. The sizes, the distances, the scale, the extremes... I'm not sure if the science or the science fiction came first for me. It's as if they've both always been there. Starting sometime in elementary school, I was convinced that I'd end up working at NASA, specifically in Mission Control. And after the release of Apollo 13, I was even more convinced. Later that year, my parents sent me to Space Camp (technically, it was "Space Academy" because of my age range). I even went to college with that goal in mind. I entered my freshman year with Astronomy as my declared major. Sadly, that did not last long for me - physics courses messed with my brain, and I wound up with a Math degree (but all of my science credits were in the astronomy department) and working in the arts. Through everything, astronomy, space exploration, and NASA have never been too far from my mind. So, It's taken me quite some time to sort out my feelings about the end of the Space Shuttle Program. In fact, I'm really not sure I've finished sorting them out. What happens next in this blog might not flow or be continuous or have paragraphs that even relate to one another, but they're all honest things that are going through my head as this era comes to an end. Please know that it is completely earnest.

My gut feeling when I think about this is sadness, hurt, and loss. I'm heartbroken. I think that's understandable. But the anger comes if I let my thoughts linger on it too much. It's not an explosive anger, but they kind where you wish you could just talk some sense into people, you know? Maybe you could even call that defensiveness. Past that, I start to feel offended. And, finally, sad again, and a bit fearful.

It has always bothered me when people complain about the project budgets at NASA. Yes, when you hear those numbers, they're very large for you and me. But put them in perspective with other governmental spending: the US bank bailout was more than the lifetime budget of NASA. We discussed this a bit on the Treks in Sci-Fi forums, and Bryancd provided these numbers: "The final bill for the Apollo program was $25.43 Billion dollars reported in 1973. Adjusted for inflation in 2005 that number would have been $170 Billion. They estimate the shuttle program cost about $200 Billion. TARP was $700 Billion but those costs are very likely going to end up being MUCH higher once they accounting, if ever, is done."

I posted that info (without the stats) on Facebook, too, and got a somewhat snarky response, "I think the bailout may have had more tangible results than NASA", which set me twitching but also reminded me that people don't realize just how much we've all benefited from the space program. Because of NASA (either by invention or re-purposing), we have: microwave ovens, WD-40, smoke detectors, modern fire portection, kevlar vests, heart pumps, HEPA filtering systems, memory foam mattresses, GPS systems, Lasik eye surgery, velcro, teflon, and various vaccines... among other things. There no possible way for me to list everything tangible that we've gained from from NASA.

But there an intangibles as well - NASA has captured our imaginations. It has inspired wonder, awe, and a thirst for knowledge. Why bother to explore? Because we can. That's a good enough reason for me. There are things to be seen and learned and we have the ability to do it. So why shouldn't we? Humans are explorers - that's what I learned from Gene Roddenberry. And I think that's all in jeopardy now.

Not only has the Shuttle program ended, but the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, is now in danger of losing it's funding. Hubble has had it's final servicing mission - we're not going back. And if the Webb program gets canceled, we better hope that this last servicing mission to Hubble will keep it in good working order for a long time to come, because we're not going to get another one. US readers, please if you care about this program, please write to your representatives and tell them not to cancel the funding for the JWST.

The offense? It's harder to describe. I obviously wasn't around during the Space Race and the height of the Cold War and all that. But our space program has always been something that inspires a great deal of patriotism in me, it's one of the things that makes me proud to be an American. Seriously. The Space Program, to me, says that we're looking towards the future and gaining knowledge and exploring. And we were the best, the leaders. Only 12 men have walked on the moon - the MOON! a completely different celestial body!! - all from the United States. Typing that just now, my heart swelled with pride and I got a tear in my eye. And now, we're going to be bumming rides to the International Space Station from the Russians. The whole thing just seams... wrong.

I mentioned being fearful. It may seem silly, but it's true. I'm fearful for the future of manned space flight. I'm fearful for the future of NASA in general. And I'm fearful for the future of scientific experimentation and discovery in this country. Because of Star Trek, I've always had an idealized view of our space program. In the Trek-verse, humans have not only resolved their differences with one another, but have joined together with races from other planets to learn from one another. There's no hunger, no poverty, no want. These are things I want to believe in, to look forward to. You can call it silly if you want, I'll understand. But that's what the space program represents to me - a way to get closer to that future. And now, I can't help but feel that NASA has been dealt an extremely damaging blow. I only hope it's not fatal.

I need a tissue.

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1 comment:

Jen said...

Amen and amen. :(