"What have 42 years of astronomically expensive manned space flight shown other than how many times we can circle the Earth? What's the cost-benefit ratio? What's NASA's annual $15 billion budget brought us? I mean other than Tang and Velcro. (...) It's time to think about these things. And ask tough questions. And slip the surly bonds of Congress and smack the face of NASA."

--John Baer, "Is NASA Lost in Space?", Philadelphia Daily News, Feb. 3, 2003


Far be it for me to disagree with the learned Mr. Baer. I have no doubt that he spent costly seconds of research determining that space travel has produced only Tang and Velcro. Surely something as frivolous as space travel could not have produced important research in biology, medicine, metallurgy, physics, and astronomy, right? I mean, who am I to argue with a guy who'd claim that he wants NASA gone partly out of respect for deceased astronauts then close his column by twisting a poem particularly beloved by astronauts into a cruel, mean-spirited jab at those same astronauts and their families, right? Right?

You hear this argument from people sometimes--that space travel is too dangerous, that we should be spending NASA's money on education (although these same people always seem to complain when too much money is devoted to public schools, damn whippersnapper coddled children), that robots could do the job as well as people.

Is space travel dangerous? It sure as hell is. With the Columbia crash, NASA has a 2% failure rate for its manned launches. That's not an insignificant risk--kill two of your 100 closest friends and try to tell me that's something you'd feel good about. But it's a much better rate than in the early days of aviation or the early days of jet aviation. When pilots were testing experimental aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in the 1950s and '60s, they had a failure rate of 25%. Do Mr. Baer and his ilk think the risks outweighed the benefits back then? Would he give up the jet airliner? The automobile? Vaccinations? Would he ever emerge from his cave? Progress is always risky; stagnation, on the other hand, is not always safe.

Could funds allocated for space travel be better spent on other programs? Perhaps. I know many people who would agree, though most of them would probably disagree, even with each other, on what the money should be spent on. However, I consider the argument to be bogus--if space travel and education (or defense or the environment or highway safety or business incentives or whatever) are both worthy enterprises AND if there is sufficient money to fund both, it's foolish to say that one of the programs should be designated less worthy and shut down. It's the equivalent of asking a parent to choose which child they love the most so that the other can be given up for adoption.

And could NASA's projects be carried out more efficiently by unmanned missions? I'm not convinced. I can't trust my home computer not to crash when I'm working on important projects--why should I trust that a space crew of robots won't suffer computer malfunctions, also? Sure, my computer is a lot less complex than the machines that NASA uses, but I've seen enough problems with other computers, both weak and powerful, to know that they're not a magical cure-all. Computers make good tools, but until they're smart enough not to make silly glitch-driven mistakes, I'm not convinced they'd make good explorers without human guidance.

I am not, by training or inclination, a scientist, so I'm not really that comfortable discussing the scientific breakthroughs that space exploration and research have brought about. I'm not a good businessman either, so I have trouble saying, yeah, the stuff discovered up there is good for business. But I have no difficulty saying that if we run away from the space program because people have died, we are Worthless Damnable Cowards. Any race that abandons progress onwards and upwards has stopped evolving--hell, they've probably already started devolving.

On a purely personal level, I want the space program to continue because I've read and loved stories by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and dozens of others and have dreamed, with them, of riding that big rocketship into the vacuum, of watching that big blue marble fall away below me, of seeing other worlds with my own eyes, rather than through a television or movie screen. I doubt I'll ever have a chance to stand on the surface of the moon, but I've seen photographs taken on the moon, and I know that the beauty of those photos is certainly not something I'd pin a price tag on. I'll never have the opportunity to stand on the red sands of Mars, but I think someone will someday, and that's worth, to me, even more than that $15 billion annual cost.

"For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return."
--Leonardo da Vinci

http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/columnists/john_baer/5091311.htm
http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/research_projects/researchupdate.html
http://www.locusmag.com/2003/Features/Letters02.html
http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/photo_gallery
Thanks to The Custodian, riverrun, Professor Pi, and arcanamundi for help with the title