Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Space Crawl

The Space Crawl

It sounds like a new kind of swimming stroke or perhaps a retro-dance from the sixties. Unfortunately, it’s probably the most accurate way to describe the current state of the manned space program in the U.S.

The shuttle Atlantis’ recent landing ended the space shuttle era. Now the U.S. finds itself with only one way to get its astronauts to the International Space Station: pay the Russians for a seat aboard a Soyuz capsule. At $51 to $67 million a person, it’s one of the most expensive taxis in the universe. And what’s more, only one American can go at a time, since the other two slots are  for Russian Cosmonauts.

I know a lot of folks out there wonder why someone who professes a “green bent” and is into “reduce, reuse and recycle” would mourn the end of the Space Race era. Yes, I admit I miss all the excitement of watching a Saturn V launch from Cape Canaveral and streak toward the moon. I miss the fuzzy video of astronauts walking and driving across the lunar landscape. I miss the sheer terror of the capsule splashdown at sea. But what I think I will miss the most is our loss of pride and obvious intelligence. The U.S. has let its manned space program essentially collapse under the weight of bureaucracy and politics, throwing thousands upon thousands of people who worked either directly and indirectly for NASA out of work.

How does putting thousands out of work, hamstringing our own manned space efforts, and losing all the momentum from the Space Race era help the current U.S. economy? Talk about not “reusing” and “recycling”! We’re forcing professional rocket scientists, astronauts, and all their support personnel back into the workforce to compete with the rest of us for jobs at McDonald’s and Wally-World.

All those wonderful inventions inspired by NASA like Tang and Velcro? Who cares! The Russians and Chinese will be creating—and marketing—all future tech inspired by space travel. The money and commerce this tech will generate will add a rosy glow to their economic futures. Too bad it won’t be helping anyone in the good ol’ U.S.A.

Who really needs to be innovative? Most Americans would probably say as long as they have their iPhone and reality TV shows they’re perfectly happy to let others design and implement the world of tomorrow. They'll complain that their new playthings cost more--and that the instructions will be written in Russian or Chinese--but they'll adapt.

But all is not totally lost. In How to Build Your Own Spaceship by Piers Bizony, the author details which private enterprises are working on manned space transports and what sorts of future tech we’ll be seeing in the next few decades. While he is cautiously optimistic, I can’t help but think that, since these are private individuals and corporations creating the space tech, they won’t be sharing the benefits of said tech freely with the public.

And all those lovely photos taken in space that NASA gave away for nothing? We might have to pay to see the next coolest galaxy spied from a private spacecraft. We might have to sign up to  a pay-on-demand channel to see the first fuzzy images from a private moonbase or trip to Mars. Sure, if you have a big chunk of change you too can fly on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic shuttle, but how many of us will be able to afford it? We’ll be working at McDonald’s.

One online article stated that while thousands of NASA astronauts, scientists and engineers were about to be thrown out of work by the end of the shuttle program, the bureaucrats at NASA held no fear—their jobs were simply going to be moved to another department.

Paper-pushers push out the innovators of technology that has helped us all live better lives... Uh-huh. I say let’s recycle the paper-pushers and put the rocket scientists back to work. I’d rather my taxes go to support the creators of future space technology. I’d rather see the infinite stars than endless miles of red tape. Wouldn't you?


Zo said...

I remember when Kennedy promised that we would go to the moon. That promise is unfulfilled until we create settlements there that will be the stepping stones to other planets. It may be up to independent groups or corporations to lay the groundwork for us to leave the earth for a home elsewhere. I've read that it is possible for a small settlement to be established on the moon with our current technology. And such a settlement would lead to incredible leaps in technological development. I've heard a number of writers and scientists speak at science fiction conventions over the years, and most seem to agree that letting the military get involved in the NASA program was a big mistake. If I recall correctly, it was the military that pushed for the shuttle design, when there was another that was more feasible (and perhaps safer). It may be that the closing of the shuttle program will bring other resources to the fore and we can still continue to reach for the stars. Make it so.

Cindy said...

If we could get to the moon in 1969with an onboard computer on the LEM that was slower and smaller in memory than today's cheap pocket calculator, then we can surely build a moonbase and live there now. The only obstacle is the lack of will and commitment. JFK inspired a generation, but the current leaders have just made everyone depressed and negative toward space technology. It's time for an attitude change at NASA for sure!

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