Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where No Man Has Gone Before...

Reports say when the White House releases their budget proposal, there will be no money for the program that was supposed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Reports say NASA will instead look at developing a new "heavy-lift" rocket that one day will take humans and robots to explore beyond low Earth orbit.

One year ago President Obama had backed a Moon return mission in the NASA budget.

There's an abounding irony in the fact that a Republican president, desperat to reverse his sagging polls numbers amidst the long-standing accusation of intellectual uninterest in the world around him, propsed not only a return to the moon, but an eventual manned landing on Mars, while the Democratic president whose intellectual curiousity teems across his life has proposed stifling that ambition.
The budget, you see, affects more than just our paychecks. It affects our humanity.
I grew up in the Space Age. The world had a future. Space had a future. Mankind had a future.
Forget colonizing other planets in our solar system! Yea, we'd establish outposts and such and do experiments. Maybe hippie communes might spring up, but space had a wealth of resources that we could use to improve the human condition.
Offshoring manufacturing would take on a whole new meaning as we'd head out to the asteroid belt, pick an appropriate rock and as we dragged it back to high earth orbit, begin to refine out metals and chemicals, processes that pollute our environment horribly. The dollar cost of the mission would be more than offset by the real savings to the environment, to the air, earth, and water, to Gaia.
We would beam back energy from solar panels floating at Lagrange points around the earth in stable orbits. No more war for oil. Sure, there'd be money to be made, but if someone tried to corner the market, someone else would fire up a rocket and deploy his or her own satellite.
And that's just the beginning. The technologies that grew out of the space program, everything from Tang to hazmat equipment to the modern computer, have served us well and one can only imagine what new technoloies could come from the needs of the astronauts.
A country is suffering a drought? It might be cheaper to drag a comet to low earth orbit and make it rain into that country's reservoirs than to bring it by the bottle or boatload across a sea. A nation needs a tourist attraction, a way to bring people to it? Well, if it has a nice climate and a lot of flat open space, it could offer to build a spaceport.
The cultural impact of space exploration cannot be ignored. Neither can it be put off. Eventually, someone is going to realize that we don't have a lot of time or space left on this planet, and if we start now, it will be cheaper in the long run. While I can appreciate the budgetary needs of the Federal government in this time of belt-tightening and counting pennies, this is something that needs to be kept on the table year after year, as a reminder of what it means to be human.