Where has the romance of space gone

*originally posted at The Relative Comment, July 7/2011

It is sad news today that the US government is considering the defunding of the James Webb telescope. The telescope may or may not happen at this point, but the possibility of its demise brings up a few less than flattering characteristics of the United States in 2011 that have been ruminating around at TRC.

In an important way, the manner in which the work of NASA and space exploration is now treated is not dissimilar to the manner in which higher-education has been devalued. There is a steady stream of articlesthese days about how the purpose of higher-education should be getting a job, and if it is not about job placement, it is a waste of money and young people’s time is better spent elsewhere, gaining experience in the real world or pursuing an entrepreneurial opportunity.

The problem here is not that gaining real world experience or starting a small business are not viable, positive life decisions. The problem is that the role of higher-education is not to act as a career center for its students—to match the student with the appropriate job and filling the  student’s brain with only that knowledge needed to perform that job. The role of higher-education is to educate students. Learning is the endgame. The career center can function as the career center. The classroom should be about teaching and learning, because, like the poster in every elementary school says: knowledge is power. I have been defending the US Space Program with this same argument for years. And I will continue for years to come.

Because this is the same misguided attitude that now seems to permeate American (or maybe just American Political) attitudes towards space exploration. It’s extremely expensive (true). NASA is poorly managed (which it is).  Money at NASA doesn’t always seem to get where it is meant to go (spot-on). And really, what is the point of seeing all those strange colored wispy things way out there in the universe? Of what value is astrophysics, astronomy, cosmology when we can’t even raise the debt ceiling in the US or find enough jail cells for all our drug users? The significance is: incalculable. Knowing more about the universe, knowing the whats and hows of deep time and creation, is an end in  itself, and should be, and it is of immeasurable value. Understanding the universe helps us understand our world, how it works, and what it does. But even if it didn’t, knowledge is an end worthy of pursuit.

And it leads me to wonder, is the romance of space gone? When I was a child, the idea of being an astronaut and going to space, of seeing the Earth from outside the Earth, or seeing the Moon from the Moon, was the ultimate daydream. Maybe, since the end of the USSR, and the lack of a “goal-oriented” space program—beat those Russians for the pride of all Americans!—the romance has lessened. But that too would be a saddening detail of 2011 in America. The visual and imaginative influence that shuttle program had on me as child was very real, and played a vital role in my future.  Though I pursued imagination (literature) over science (though the two are in no way mutually exclusive and rely heavily upon one another) in college, the role of the shuttles and Hubble, the tragedies and victories of the program deeply affected me and the way I read Paradise Lost or wrote a silly poem about love. It happened just yesterday, as I looked over and over again, in awe, at this single picture from the Cassini Spacecraft.

Now, the shuttle program is ending, NASA will likely lose the James Webb telescope, and the astrophysicists, comsologists, and astronomers of America wonder what will become of science in the US. We hear so often, especially from our President, about the importance of bringing an emphasis back to science education in the United States. But if we continue to de-fund the projects that will provide a future of science to those students, we are passing on a vital opportunity in exchange for a short-sighted vision that will have long-term negative impacts on our future. Says Matt Mountain (from Times article, linked above), director of Space Telescope Institute, “This is particularly disappointing at a time when the nation is struggling to inspire students to take up science and engineering.”

It’s not overstating it: one de-funded project at a time, we could end up damaging the future for American Science, withholding valuable childhood daydreams, and producing not only fewer astrophysicists, but also fewer love poems. Space is not just about science, it’s about inspiration.

If you are looking for a higher authority on the subject, how about Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan and Neil Armstrong, and their editorial in the USA Today from May 24, 2011.

After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.
 ”We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe that the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none.”
— President Kennedy
Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.


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