Saturday, April 24, 2010

Someone Else's Final Frontier

Cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the popular B.C. comic strip, once quipped "Cutting the space budget really restores my faith in humanity. It eliminates dreams, goals and ideals and lets us get straight to the business of hate, debauchery and self-annihilation."

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced that he is scrapping the Constellation program, which was supposed to replace the aging space shuttle with a new orbital vehicle and return men to the moon by 2020, from which they might venture further out into the solar system. This move has caused some to speculate that the future of space exploration will not belong to America but to some other nation, very likely the Chinese.

In response, Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, the last human being to walk on the moon, and Jim Lovell, one of three human beings who almost didn't make it back from the moon, wrote an open letter to the white house expressing their dismay. These are men who risked their lives in pursuit of a dream, only to see that dream shelved during their lifetimes.

We all understand that times are tough at the moment and the space program is expensive. Some might argue that the U.S. government, already mired in trillions of dollars in debt, can't afford to support a space program. Yet the Pentagon spends the estimated $108 billion that it would cost to return men to the moon by 2020 every three months or so. Obama has earmarked $600 million per year for the next five years for the design and manufacture of heavy-lift rockets required to send spacecrafts to Mars or the asteroids. Sounds good at first, until one realizes that that's about the same amount of money that it costs to purchase just four F-22 fighters. I suspect that the U.S. Air Force will likely be purchasing more than four F-22's per year over the next five years.

America never shone so brightly as she did during the Apollo years. The space program has given science invaluable new insights into the origin of the Earth, her moon and the solar system itself. It introduced new technologies and disciplines that have found useful applications outside the field of space exploration. It has subjugated no peoples and hardly killed anyone, with the exception of three unfortunate accidents. Unlike the shameful Abu Graib prison scandal and Wall Street's more recent financial implosion, the space program has done nothing to undermine America's international reputation. Quite to the contrary, the space program has been one of those American undertakings that the rest of the world has looked on with admiration. What a shame that, as Johnny Hart previously observed, America is once again forsaking her loftier dreams in favor of war, greed and short-sighted self-interest.

I'd suggest that Canada step forward, except that we'd probably just scrap the entire program and destroy all related materials after building the first five rockets.

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