WorldWide Wanderings

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Thoughts on the NASA initiative

Note: I know this is a significant change of direction for this blog, but I've been wanting to post this somewhere permanant for some time. I wrote this as a letter in January 2004, in response to the President's speech announcing a new mission for NASA. I thought, and still think, that this is a very important program for our country, and my reasons why are here. As a caveat, the first reason I list (National unity) is my weakest argument, so please keep reading, even if you disagree with that point. Comments are welcome!


By now, I'm sure most of you have heard about President Bush's new space initiative that he announced on Wednesday. In short, he wants to re-focus NASA's mission. This would involve fulfilling our obligations to the International Space Station, then retiring the 30-year-old Space Shuttle fleet. At the same time, he wants to create a new spacecraft allowing us to return humans to the moon, establish a presence there, and then send a manned mission to the planet Mars. To accomplish these goals, he proposes a 5% per year increase in NASA's budget, up to 1% of the total federal budget. I've heard a lot of speculation on the news about whether these goals are feasible, and more importantly, whether they are cost-effective. There seems to be a considerable debate about whether it's really worth the billions of dollars of investment that this initiative will require. Critics of the plan argue that it's a wasteful use of the money, done only to send out thrill-seekers to plant a flag on a new planet's surface. I, however, couldn't disagree more. I believe that this is, in fact, a very worthwhile investment, and that this initiative is well worth supporting for a variety of reasons. Allow me to explain:

One reason I think going back to the moon would be good is that it will provide a common goal for the country again. Although I wasn't alive to see the Apollo program come to fruition, I've heard and read that it provided a rallying point for our nation: we were going to send a man to the Moon, and it would take everyone's support. Even now, I hear people from other countries talk about how exciting it was to learn that a human being--regardless of his country of origin--was walking on the Moon. I know that the space program didn't directly impact everyone's lives, but I would imagine that it did give Americans a certain sense of pride to be involved in such a grand endeavor. Right now though, the closest thing the U.S. has to a common goal is our "War on Terror." This still seems a troublingly Orwellian idea ("War is Peace"), and I don't think it's healthy for it to be the centerpiece of our nation's attitude or policies. I'd much rather be known as a citizen of the country that's pursuing peace, exploring new frontiers, and seeking greater understanding.

But there are far better reasons to support NASA than nationalistic pride. Economically, this initiative will provide a significant economic boost at a time when it's sorely needed. It's important to remember that the ??? billion dollars spent by NASA will not simply disappear or evaporate: They'll be paid to companies that will build everything required to send people into space. With the huge contracts gained by these companies, they'll require more workers, and will themselves farm out more work to smaller contractors. Even if some of the orders are filled by overseas factories (and some will), one thing I can assure you: building a new fleet of spacecraft will require loads of high-grade metallic alloys and extremely-fine-tolerance machined parts, which are still strong points of American industry. A new manned moon mission could add thousands of jobs across the metals, machining, aerospace, and chemical sectors of the U.S. economy.

As a sub-point, I'd also like to point out that one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy right now is the so-called Military-Industrial Complex. The companies that build weapons, and the sub-contractors they hire employ a vast number of scientists, engineers, technicians, and blue-collar workers, directly or indirectly. The DOD has a budget tens of times larger than the proposed NASA budget, and simply reducing the military budget is not a viable option: the money must be spent in some other industry, or we'll decimate our own economy. I realize that in this world, war will always be with us, and the military will always be in demand. But at the same time, a large investment in the space program could change the face of engineering and industry, as larger numbers of people turn their creative and technical skills toward peaceful causes instead of building instruments of death.

Next, the technologies that are likely to come out of this program are likely to benefit people worldwide. This is one point the critics often concede, but I don't think the true importance of this concept is appreciated. Lots of people talk about wanting to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and developing alternative sources of energy, but the paltry sums of money actually invested in these technologies are not likely to provide a breakthrough anytime soon. However, there is no oil, gas, or coal on the Moon. This means our spaceships, engines, and moon bases will have to run on a completely different source of fuel, or we simply won't be able to go. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the space program is likely to be the catalyst we need to develop some alternative power sources and begin reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Without such an immediate challenge, there is far less reason to do anything but talk about the problem.

As another example, a manned Mars mission is likely to take between 2 and 4 years, round-trip. All food, air, and water will have to be carried, as there will be no chance of re-supply en route. Extremely robust and long-lasting air and water purification and filtration systems, then, will have to be perfected if our astronauts are to survive. Waste minimization and recycling will also be of vital importance. These technologies will have an almost immediate application right here on Earth, where millions of people around the world are without access to clean water, and where hyper-urbanization leads to tons of waste being generated every day. There are likely to be many other technologies to come out of the space program that we can only dream about now, but it's obvious that an investment in space technology is ultimately an investment in earthbound technology.

Another impact of these manned Moon and Mars mission may be the development of new scientists and engineers. When the railroad was developed (actually, throughout the industrial revolution), the "engineering" profession became a respectable career, as people began to understand the importance of technology on their lives. Again, when the U.S. undertook the Apollo missions, an entire generation of young people was introduced to the sciences or engineering as viable and exciting careers. Now we're on the threshold of a new call for astronauts and the engineers who will send them on their way. Who knows how many kids now in school will be inspired to become engineers or scientists once it again becomes "cool" to be "smart?" These men and women may not end up working on the space program per se, but the contributions they make to technology and scientific progress are likely to be significant.

Which leads me to the last reason I think the President's space initiative is worth supporting: it's difficult to put a price tag on scientific understanding. Even when the things we discover don't immediately impact our life or society, I believe it's still worthwhile to support the pursuit of knowledge. Just as art provides an outlet for our God-given desire to create, science provides an outlet for our desire to explore and understand the world around us. And just as it's easy to cut art and music programs because they don't immediately enrich our lives, it's easy to dismiss scientific research that we don't understand. But in both cases, I believe that in the long run, we will miss their influence in our society. Don't misunderstand me: I don't believe science will ever be our saviour: Only the Gospel will truly transform our lives and society, and at the end of the day, if I have to choose, I'll cast my lot with Jesus. But I still believe exploration and knowledge are worth supporting, if not for ourselves, then for the generations to come.

I'm really quite excited by the President's proposal, and I really hope that it will come to fruition. It will require public support, however, and I fear people may not look beyond the simple politics of the speech. If any of these arguments resonate with you, I would encourage you to contact your Senator or Representative and ask them to support the increase in NASA's budget. I'd also be interested in hearing from you if you disagree, or if you think there are holes in my logic. It will be interesting to see what comes out of all of this. I hope and pray that it will be good, and not ill.