Wings to Space, Part II

The Future of a Technological Society Hangs in the Balance

In my last entry, I talked about my own first and last shuttle experiences. In this entry, I want to share some thoughts that have been with me since the last launch – tough thoughts, political thoughts. So yeah, I’m going a little political here. I get to do that once in a while.

I’ve read a lot of ruminating on various blogs about whether the end of the space shuttle missions signals the end of NASA.  If the promises being made by our President and various politicians are to be believed, then there is a new era of human spaceflight in our future.  And so no, it’s probably not the end of NASA. It may be, however, that the NASA of tomorrow will look different from what we know today.  Is that good or bad?  Hard to tell.  Need more data.

It’s tough to expect a bright future for NASA, and science in general in our country, when we see the bickering going on in Washington, D.C. over the budget. It’s hard to believe anybody in the Tea Party or the GOP when we see them seeking to actively force cutbacks in research in this country – not just at NASA, but in other agencies as well — in order to preserve tax cuts for people who can personally buy their own biz jets.

So, color me a bit skeptical of official political promises about our future in space. As the saying goes, “Show me the money.”  I’d expand on that, “Show me the money and the political and cultural will to forge ahead in space and science research in this country.”

What we spend just on NASA (its 2012 proposed budget is $18.7 billion dollars) doesn’t come close to what Americans put out on pizza (around $27 billion dollars) or on tobacco and alcohol ($88 billion and $97 billion per year respectively).  Someone once pointed out that Bernie Madoff scammed $50 billion dollars from his investors. An interesting perspective, no?

Think about that $18.7 billion figure.  It’s a fraction of what people spend on gambling each year — and, not much of that money gets to NASA (proving all too well that what gets spent in Vegas apparently stays in Vegas). Think about that the next time you buy a lotto ticket.  (Want to see a cool depiction of our Federal budget and NASA’s part in it? Go here. Find NASA’s budget.  You will be surprised. That little box of spending is dwarfed by other things…)

I hope that Americans don’t lose pride in NASA and its accomplishments. The agency still has a lot of science to do, a lot of work ongoing in many areas. It still has space probes sending back information from Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, and eventually through New Horizons at the outer worlds of the solar system. Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra and many other orbiting observatories are still showing us the cosmos, teaching us more each day.  The agency is still studying Earth and teaching more and more about our planet’s atmosphere (this area of study really seems to scare climate change denialists into threatening to cut those parts out of NASA (and from NOAA as well)). And, all those projects that cost us some very small fraction of the national budget, go to pay good salaries; those who get those salaries go on to buy houses, clothes, food, cars, pay taxes, and so on — thus participating in a huge multiplying effect of the money spent on NASA and science research.

NASA is working with private industry to get people back to space sometime “soon”. I’m glad to see it — as I do think that there is a role for private industry to play here.  It may be an evolving role, so we should all watch to see where and to what it evolves.

But, as others have wondered, I also query whether or not private industry will seek to do the same kinds of wide-ranging science that NASA has traditionally done.  It very likely won’t, since private industry must answer to stockholders and long-term science gains are not always as compatible with the bottom line as people might wish. (Just take a look at Big Pharma and Big Agra to see how bottom line concerns frequently trump science.)

NASA is something we, as citizens collectively own through our tax dollars. It is not a private company, with profits being funneled to investors who were lucky (or connected) enough to get in on the ground floor. It’s ours. And, as such, we REALLY ought to be demanding that our employees in Congress and the White House (and YES, these people are supposed to be working FOR us, not against us), preserve and enhance that which we own.  We have that right and they have the duty to listen to us.

When I think of the shutting down of the shuttle program (by President Bush), the issues that led to the cancellation of the Constellation program by President Obama (complex issues which seemed to be insurmountable both financially and politically, and which seemed to force the President and NASA into a sort of Hobson’s choice)and the current rush in Congress by ideologically driven partisan hacks to gut NASA’s scientific and technical programs, I have to wonder what the hell happened to our pride and joy?  Are the folks who want to quash science research thinking of what WE as citizens jointly own? Do they even care about what we’ve paid for?  Or for the hard-line budget-cutters, is it just politics as usual in the hunt for votes and re-election campaign funding and pandering to whackoes at both extremes of the political spectrum?  If so, why is our country’s technological future being held hostage by science-ignorant ideologues?

Gutting NASA rips jobs out of an economy that needs them. It’s not just government employees who are losing them. These are people who work for NASA’s technology contractors – companies and corporations – that private sector the GOP loves to crow about.

Cutting science research and development in programs across the board also cuts job in education, related research, real estate, retail — you name it.  It hands people unemployment checks that Republicans really don’t want to be handing out (if you judge them by their attempts to cut off unemployment assistance). It decimates communities, reduces educational opportunities, and makes this country look – on the world scientific stage – as if it is retreating from modernity and progress. I don’t know about you, but I find that damned embarrassing. I didn’t vote for these jerks, but they’re acting like ostriches in my name, and I don’t like it.

Republicans recently gloated over a bad jobs report, but they seemed not realize that they had a huge hand in creating those losses of jobs through a variety of programs they’ve eviscerated in the name of “sticking it to the President (and the Democrats)” in an ideological struggle. (Don’t even get me started on the massively punitive cuts that some in Congress wish to deal to health care and other needed programs.)

Why do these scientifically illiterate politicians feel it necessary to cut the pride of the nation? Are tax cuts to wealthy donors really worth putting thousands and thousands of people out of work and eviscerating one of the greatest economic engines this country has ever built?  I guess it must be, because these idiots are in Washington scrabbling like vultures over the scraps of NASA that are still left. They won’t be happy until it’s all gone, I suspect.

I posted a video in a previous entry showing shuttle workers sharing their pride in their work and their agency and their country. I dare any extremist politician (Teabagger, GOPper, whatever) to look them in the eye and tell them that their jobs and pride aren’t needed any more. I’m sure there’s no one in among the extremists in Washington with the guts to do that, because they would be admitting out loud that they don’t get it, they don’t care about their country, and they don’t care about the pride of a nation. They only care about votes and tax cuts for a small, wealthy subset of citizens. It’s really a situation out of balance and out of logic.

Thirty years ago, when I woke up on that April 12th to watch the first shuttle launch, it probably never occurred to me that today ideologues would be forcing America to leave science on the table, that their ignorance about science would force our country to welsh on deals with other countries for science projects (that provide jobs). I didn’t see that we’d have strutting demogogues going after the things that make this country a technological powerhouse;  gutting NASA, cutting technological achievement, seeking to break up the highly successful National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over a fear of climate change, attempting to shut down JWST (thereby wasting the money that has already been spent on it), and, in general, shredding the dignity of U.S. technology workers.

Is this any way of saying “thanks” to the shuttle crews? To NASA? To those of us who “own” NASA?  They and we deserve more than that. Apparently that “ownership society” that we used to hear all about doesn’t include respecting our collective ownership of an agency that has consistently multiplied the money it gets to boost the economy, to produce fantastic technological and scientific achievements. And, yes, to educate a generation of us who grew up thinking of astronomy and space science achievements as our collective birthright.

The political groups who want to strip our country of its technological edge don’t seem to respect the great leaps of knowledge Americans have made in many areas of science, leaps that contribute in so many ways to our society.  And that’s just damned sad.  More than that, it’s a studied insult of American values, an insult given by people who think it’s just dandy to shut down governments over ideological issues that have nothing to do with good government and everything to do with fomenting fear and dissension and whoring for votes. I’m just sorry that NASA has to pay the price for such ignorant behavior.

I hope that sometime soon, we’ll  wake up and demand that our country continue to progress, scientifically, technologically, medically, socially  — in every way that points to modern huma nity doing its best.  I want to see renewed NASA launch programs taking wing again – taking humans to space and continuing to expand our knowledge with additional robotic probes that can go where humans cant.  I look forward to reveling in the idea that we ALL “own” that progress, that ideology has no place in science, and that together we can step forward into the future, leading the way for our political servants to follow.

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