The Dream of the Stars
When President Bush announced his administration's new plan for human space exploration, chills shot up my spine. Having been a Trekkie since the tender age of three, I’ve yearned most of my life for a strong space-exploration program. While much about the proposal remains to be drawn-up and released to the public, it seems--tentatively--that the Bush administration may be taking a first step towards realizing a permanent human presence on other worlds and achieving what should be a paramount national and international goal.
Some Not-so-Minor Issues
Skeptics of Mr. Bush's plan do have some valid criticisms to make. First off, Mr. Bush declined to give many actual specifics at the NASA press conference where the plan was formally unveiled. He spoke in vague generalities, citing an as-yet uncreated "crew exploration vehicle" as the new workhorse of a future space fleet. Second, Mr. Bush's funding plans for this new space project will be catastrophic for NASA's unmanned scientific endeavors. Instead of reviving NASA with an infusion of much-needed cash (Mr. Bush's plan only calls for an extra $1 billion in financing over the next five years) and saving money by grounding the decaying shuttle fleet, he intends to reallocate NASA's internal budget in a way that puts important scientific ventures--including the Hubble Space Telescope and unmanned flights to Jupiter’s moons--at risk. In addition, critics point out that George Bush, Sr. issued a similar call for manned space exploration as part of his unsuccessful reelection bid (the project tanked when its price tag was estimated to be over $400 billion).
The Real Benefits of Space
Despite these well-founded criticisms, Mr. Bush's plan might--just might--be the shot in the arm the United States' anemic space program needs. It's been over 30 years since mankind first stepped foot on another world, yet NASA's current focus doesn't anticipate a new drive to explore the terra incognita of even our nearest celestial neighbors. Some would applaud this, arguing that mankind has enough problems managing a war-infested, hunger-stricken, polluted planet--we should focus instead on dealing with these pressing issues, skeptics declare. However, proponents of this view ignore the tangible benefits that space exploration has brought with it. NASA’s work has led to the improvement of aerogels, a vital insulator that has largely replaced carcinogenic asbestos. NASA's innovations have also set computing ahead by decades and led to the creation of the cell phone. Sensors used to monitor astronauts' vital signs are now indispensible aids in hospitals throughout the world. Pacemakers, devices that save the lives of thousands of heart-disease sufferers each year by regulating erratic heart rhythms, also have their beginnings in the space program. The space shuttle Columbia, when it exploded, was carying an important experiment on prostate-cancer treatment. The GPS sattellite system, which revolutionized aircraft safety and nautical navigation, uses technology developed by NASA, as do the weather satellites that save thousands of lives each year by allowing meteorologists to track dangerous storms. Gear designed to protect workers at shuttle launch sites is now standard issue for firefighters. The modern smoke detector is a byproduct of NASA research, as is the air conditioner. Even the filter systems of swimming pools come from equipment designed to purify astronauts' water. The list goes on.
The space program that Mr. Bush unveiled would provide further windfalls for a syzygy of corporate, international and consumer interests. Ore could be mined from the rich lunar soil to supplement our metal supplies, reducing the need to spend millions digging up Earth's soil and reducing the ecological effects of such mining. Solar panels placed on the Moon would be able to supply Earth with much of its electricity in a safe and environmentally friendly manner; the technology to do this mostly exists today. Whole new industries created to make the Bush plan a reality--especially the design and production of a new interplanetary vehicle--would translate into larger corporate profits and cause further scientific leaps forward, as well as creating jobs. Mr. Bush’s invitation of international cooperation on space issues will help create stronger international ties for the United States.
The Growth of the Spirit and the Body Scientific
The benefits of a space-exploration program are not wholly material, however. We humans are born with an irrepressible drive to explore our surroundings. It is this urge that led to the greatest discoveries in our history--our greatest heroes are often the people who took huge risks in attempting to learn more about the universe. John’s Gospel notes that “you always have the poor with you” yet counsels not to be paralyzed from action because of this sad but true fact. Not only does such a worldview eventually lead to the ossification of mankind's creative energies, it ignores the tangible effect manned space travel and its byproducts will have on the standard of living worldwide.
Though it’s promising to see a president paying at least some attention to extraterrestrial exploration, many more details must be released by Mr. Bush before anyone should wholeheartedly accept his plan. There are simply too many unknowns (especially in regards to cost) to make a reliable, quantitative assessment of the Bush proposition. While this plan may represent a first step towards a permanent human extraterrestrial presence, in the end the private sector must be brought in as a full partner in space exploration. Private enterprises, motivated by profit yet constrained by sufficient governmental regulation, tend to spend money and allocate resources more efficiently than the federal government does--look at the failure of European governments' large public sectors. The private sector also adapts more easily to changing situations than red-tape-bound bureaucrats. Businesses stand much to gain from space exploration, especially in the revenue space tourism is sure to bring in. If Mr. Bush can manage to plan a large role for Corporate America, he will not only save federal dollars but promote a healthier economy. Plus, business interests would continue with further space programs when the federal government’s attention--and budget--for such voyages wanes.
A Challenge and a Hope
In the end, any space plan is better than the one we have now, which will leave humanity Earth-bound for the conceivable future. This course is unacceptable. Mankind must rise to the challenge, stimulating its sense of adventure and curiosity to reach for the stars, reaping the corresponding rewards: spiritually, intellectually and materially. Let us therefore strive for the cosmos, not with some escapist fantasy in mind, but with the full knowledge that it satisfies an innate human need and has the possibility of bringing out the best of ourselves. Our future is in the stars; let us embrace it together.
My thanks to Peanut for all the information on the benefits NASA technology has reaped for society.
(Note: for a complete transcript of Mr. Bush's speech, see President George W. Bush's Speech on New Vision for Space Exploration.)