Poor NASA.

I mean, look at the photos of the space shuttle. You notice, they’ve never cleaned the heat-resistant tiles, or replaced them, so the scorches are still there. The thing looks like a beat-up used car.

“Let’s see…the Russians have a Porsche, the French have a t-bird, and we have…a 1973 ford with bald tires and wire holding the door shut...Send it up!”

 The amazing thing about the Shuttle is that it DID hold up, despite how banged-up it looks. Those NASA engineers had to design a vehicle that could survive entry into earth's atmosphere an indefinite number of times, which is probably the toughest drive anyone will ever do unless they drive a truck across Siberia or the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And the engineers did ther job well. The shuttle went up and came down so many times that it became routine, such that Cape Canaveral could promote boat-tour viewing parties.

When the shuttle finally DID fail, it was because NASA's internal command structure prevented a fatal flaw from being fixed in time.

That wasn't a problem of funding, but NASA does deserve more federal funding. They get very little. It’s like the military gets every other cookie in the jar, social security and medicare get the rest, scientific grants get the crumbs, and NASA gets half a crumb, some compliments about what a good job it's doing, and a pat on the back.

By this point, they’re relying on donations from the private sector. That's why why they’re able to send up radio telescopes to peer into the VERY DEPTHS OF SPACE-TIME while all the senators laugh at them.

 Remember when Newt Gingrich said he wanted to build a moon base, and everyone laughed at him? I remember growing up and thinking that moon bases were The Future. Not just the future, but The Future. You know -- flying cars, jet packs, towering cities, all the heroic, insanely impractical electronic wonders of the Space Age. Trains with cars the size of ocean liners! Bubble-dome automobiles! Food pills! All manner of things we realized could never be feasible.

And maybe a moon base isn't feasible. But we didn't all say "that might not work, how about we try ____". We Laughed. We dismissed Gringrich's idea out of hand, barely even considering what that meant about our hope for space travel. We haven't put forth any real effort towards interplanetary travel since we stopped going to the moon. The Space Shuttle was not a ship meant for travel. It was never designed to do anything but reach high Earth orbit.

And we only ever had a few, in any case. Not enough for a fleet -- just enough to serve Skylab and Mir and the ISS.

And now? Nothing. All NASA can do now is send up telescopes to peer into the depths of space-time, while the rest of us decide that this last frontier is not only not worth exploring, it's not even worth the effort.

Admittedly, there have always been people who say "why are we spending all that money up in space when we could be spending it down here". Such sentiment existed even in the midst of the moon landings. The difference then was that there were enough people in support of the Space Race that the naysayers had no effect. Now that we seem to have lost interest in publically-funded space travel, all we hear are the naysayers. Our latest enthusiasm is for privately-funded space travel. That hasn't been going all that well. Although it took NASA a long time to reach the moon, too, so we'll see how the private comapnies make out. 

My worry about private space travel is not wether it will succeed -- I know it will succeed. My worry is that private companies work differently than government organizations, and that the people they will allow into space first will be those who can pay, as opposed to those who have merit. Space travel will become a pleasure cruise for rich people instead of something that the common people feel they have a stake in. Remember everyone you knew who said "I want to be an astronaut" when they were 7 years old? It doesn't matter that 99% of them never became astronauts. What matters is that they felt that space travel was something they could do, were allowed to do, if they had the ability. It was a dream that they could entertain without considering the expensel. "I want to go to space on a rocket made of mom's money" doesn't have the same ring to it.

On the other hand, how likely is it that private companies will the the first to reach Mars? Space travel is such a huge expense and risk that the only groups willing to voyage into the unknown are those who can afford huge potential losses, i.e. goverments that can borrow money freely. Or governments who don't give a damn about their people. And the risks only grow greater the further you get from earth. You've got to deal with cabin fever, cosmic radiation, food supplies, communication, et cetera. Sending a ship to Mars is like sending a submersible to the deep ocean -- if the vessel breaks, your crew is the only pair of hands that can fix the damage. You can't call AAA from either location.

Even the companies that settled and conquered the Western Hemisphere did so with the official funding and scrutiny of their royal governments. When it's time to explore, private companies follow in the wake of the trails that governments blaze. I have little doubt that the first mission to Mars, or beyond, will be publically funded.

We just have to give NASA another chance.

Don't worry about the money. It is being spent here on earth. We're not flinging boxes of cash out the airlock of the ISS. We're not spending money "in space" until we find other civilizations to exchange currency with.

It's as dangerous as anything, but, so was the last frontier we settled. Hell, it's still dangerous. Living in Colorado means losing half your friends to natural disasters by the time you're fifty. But people sitll live there. The same thing will happen with outer space.

And this time there are no natives to kick out of the way, as far as we can tell.

The universe awaits!


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