Space Do-Overs

Let me start by saying as much as I love Star Trek, I don’t care about space, the final frontier. I don’t gaze into the night sky and wonder about infinity. I’m not curious about other planets or black holes or if Mars has ice. Honestly, the only Milky Way I care about is covered in chocolate and has a delicious fluffy center.

But I will give a shout out to JB, my favorite rocketeer, and to Hans, my favorite astrophysicist, despite the fact they’re much too busy and smart to visit BeckyLand. Besides, they’ll only argue with me about this. And have I mentioned they’re smarter than I am?

We ”” the collective American we, because let’s face it, nobody within a moon rock’s toss of BeckyLand had anything to do with it ”” went to the moon 40 years ago in a race to beat Russia up there. Just to say we did it. Like eating snails. Or applying to Princeton. Or getting a job.

But c’mon. Really?

Buzz Aldrin thinks we should go to Mars. Tom Stafford, commander of Apollo 10 agreed and said, “All of us here are pretty much convinced that Mars is a goal to shoot for.”

Buzz said, “Apollo 11 was a symbol of what a great nation and a great people can do if we work hard and work together.”

But neither Buzz nor Stafford has explained to me why we should go to Mars. What would we get out of it? What would be the purpose? To say we did it? How redundant.

I can’t find a list of the tangible benefits we’ve received from the moon shot and all the shuttle trips. What useful, practical information have we learned from space in the last 40 years? As I said, I’m not at all interested in the cosmos, but I can understand there’s lots of cool stuff out there. But for the price tag, shouldn’t all of humanity benefit from the knowledge?

The only thing I ever hear about are the spacewalks at the international space station to fix things. Remember the toolbelt that floated away? And the $15.6 million space-station toilet that broke? I can only imagine the horror of dodging slow-mo space poo floating around.

Absolutely unrelated to my argument, but I read something interesting recently. There are six current astronauts who weren’t even alive when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. One is Christopher Cassidy, a crew member aboard the space shuttle Endeavor. Okay. Palate cleansed, back to arguing.

President Obama used the moon landing anniversary as an opportunity to inspire learning about math and science. But surely there are ways to do that without spending a gazillion dollars on the space program. Right now NASA’s budget is $20 billion, which is less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget. But still. Does that make it cheap? $20 billion can go a long way to fixing the health insurance mess. Or to actually teach math and science rather than just “inspiring” kids in those areas. It can get a lot of clunkers off the highways, shore up a lot of crumbling bridges, and harness a lot of wind power.

Can we really justify NASA continuing the space program when we have so many devastating problems to conquer here on terra firma?

I think the next giant leap should actually do some good, not just the squishy “we beat the Russians” or “the human spirit needs to explore.”

These are the three themes I continue to hear regarding space exploration …

• the U. S. needs it to remain globally competitive
• the U.S. has “security interests” in being a world leader in space exploration
• and states need to maintain their local “space economy,” building rockets and such.

Security interests in space feels ominous to me.

I really only understand that last one. It reminds me of the recent fight about the F-22s. The Pentagon didn’t want them, the President didn’t want them, the taxpayers didn’t want them. But Congress wanted them because component parts were built in their states. Smells über-porky.

An independent group is “reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight program and should present its findings in August.”

So these are my questions:
1. Should NASA return to the moon, head straight to Mars, or neither?
2. What do we achieve from space travel? What are the tangible benefits?

Help me understand.

10 thoughts on “Space Do-Overs”

  1. Hey, Tang came out of the space mission….and freeze dried food. I’m sure there are other hands-on inventions that would never have come to pass if not for the $20 billion space program. I am sorry to say that I have not bought my share of items to pay back the investment.

  2. 1. No idea. Ask the Augustine commission.
    2. About a zillion things. Pacemakers and MRIs were developed because of the space program. Weather satellites. Do you know how we used to find out about hurricanes? When they showed up, that’s when. Satellite communications are pretty nifty too. There’s are about a million other things as well. Try googling it.

    There are legitimate national security interests involved as well. An attack from orbit is virtually impossible to repel without an orbital presence. This doesn’t have to be troops landing either. Bombs (either conventional or simply made out of rock) can be absolutely devastating when dropped from orbit.

  3. Also, it should be pointed out that not one thin dime has ever been spent in space. All of that money has stayed right here on Earth, supporting high-tech research.

    This next tidbit always surprises people, but it’s true: NASA is the only bureau of the US government that has ever turned a profit. And the actual payoff (both in human happiness and cold hard cash) has been enormous.

    All of humanity does benefit from the knowledge gained from space exploration.

    Here’s the list you were looking for. Beware, it’s kind of a long read.

    1. Excellent list, Captain Mike. Thanks for pointing me toward it, it’s exactly what I was searching for, but all of these were developed/discovered by going into space? I don’t think so. While many of them are indeed helpful technologies, my contention is that they could have ”” and would have ”” been created by those who needed them right here on earth. I’m not disparaging NASA scientists in any way because clearly, they ROCK. But I think we’d have the same outcome if they’d been working for Dupont or any R&D firm.

      I guess my clarified question is: what useful technology has been discovered in space that couldn’t have been discovered here on earth (probably for a fraction of the cost)?

      I love that argument that the entire space program is “only” 0.8% of the budget. Let’s see … what’s 0.8% of 2.4 TRILLION dollars?

      And as for the “attack from orbit” … really, what’s the likelihood of that? Unless it’s a wayward toolbelt or other trash we’ve left up there.

      1. Oh, forgot. These were two of my favorite things NASA was working on …

        RIBBED SWIMSUIT – NASA-developed riblets applied to competition swimsuits resulted in flume testing of 10 to 15 percent faster speeds than any other world class swim-suit due to the small, barely visible grooves that reduce friction and aerodynamic drag by modifying the turbulent airflow next to the skin.

        GOLF BALL AERODYNAMICS – A recently designed golf ball, which has 500 dimples arranged in a pattern of 60 spherical triangles, employs NASA aerodynamics technology to create a more symmetrical ball surface, sustaining initial velocity longer and producing a more stable ball flight for better accuracy and distance.

  4. The chances of them being developed without the space program are effectively zero, because nobody would have thought to work on them. Every single thing on that list is a spin-off. Also, there are lots of things that are literally impossible to research on Earth. Anything that needs microgravity for one thing. It’s actually a very effective way to study certain microorganisms and techniques needed to combat them.

    In case you didn’t notice from that list, roughly every dollar spent on NASA has returned its investment seven times.

    Hurricane, forest fire, and earthquake prediction alone are worth the pittance that has been invested in the space program. Science is expensive, but worth it.

    Regarding attacks from orbit, the chances are depressingly good. The United States isn’t the only nation interested in the big deep. I can’t remember the exact wording, but there’s a sign outside China’s Jia Quan space center that reads something like “Without fear, we will conquer the world.”

      1. Oh … these were some of the funny and thoughtful comments I got from facebook …

        We need space travel so I can get back home.

        We need to reach for the stars, achieve the impossible, stretch the capacity of human curiosity, skill, and technology to achieve previously unreachable goals. To search, explore, expand our horizons. Why did Columbus come to the New World? Oh, and because without it, we wouldn’t have velcro or satellites (communication and otherwise) or a long distance perspective of our world.

        We need space exploration to prove the science wrong in old science fiction books so that new authors will have original stories to tell! 🙂

        Why was Capt. James T. Kirk born???????? To boldly go where no man has gone before……

        Don’t you mean to split infinitives boldly that no one had split before? 😉

        Space science is telling us about how the sun works and impacts our environment. Btw, it still remains the biggest cause of global warming 🙂

        Going to Mars gives us an alternative to Earth for resources, living, etc. May be useful to have available particularly if that pesky sun decides to get warmer again. There’s also that exploration bug.

        Space in general is useful for lots of things including national security but also weather forecasting in big ways. The national Hurricane Center is really good. Space also helps with our comms. Oh, almost forgot … And GPS!

  5. Point of interest:

    Columbus was actually trying to escape the apocalypse when he came to America, thinking he was going to India. He wasn’t trying to prove the earth was round, as that had been proved by Aristotle 300+ years before Jesus. And He wasn’t just doing it to prove it could be done. Thought Beckyland might appreciate some trivia.

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