At the theater to see "Sicko," I saw the preview for "In the Shadow of the Moon," the predictably feel-good Ron Howard documentary about the Apollo space program of the 1960s. A companion scoffed at the tear-jerker "one human family" theme of the trailer, and suggested that it is almost blasphemous that the United States, where 50 million people are uninsured and over 30 million live in poverty, spends 0.7 percent of its budget, or $16.8 billion annually, on NASA.
Two counterraguments came to my mind immediately: First, I believe scientific exploration is worthy for its own sake and necessary for the continued life and well-being of the human species. Secondly, I would rather see American industry exert itself building space shuttles and high tech scientific equipment than materials for war.
Thankfully, in the June issue of Wired, Gregg Easterbrook helps to refine these points. NASA is "big, dumb, and slow," he writes, but can be put to good use. His four suggestions for NASA are, in descending order of importance:
(1) Conduct research, particularly environmental research, on Earth, the sun, and Venus, the most Earth-like planet. (2) Locate asteroids and comets that might strike Earth, and devise a practical means of deflecting them. (3) Increase humanity's store of knowledge by studying the distant universe. (4) Figure out a way to replace today's chemical rockets with a much cheaper way to reach Earth orbit.
NASA has been canceling sun studies and observations of Earth soil moisture trends in favor of sinking $6 billion annually into the international space station, where, as Easterbook writes acridly, astronauts "take each other's blood pressure." And rather than seek out far-away asteroids that could destroy our planet (the souce of many sleepless childhood nights for me), NASA continues to funnel money toward the American corporations most invested in inefficient and dangerous manned space flight, Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think the NASA of the 1960s was a national treasure, and it's awesome to think the agency could refashion itself as a beacon of hope in the fight against global warming. Our federal government isn't that visionary very often, but I'd like to see one of the Democratic presidential candidates talk about the possibilities of NASA.