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Tomorrow


Ever since I was a boy and my father introduced me to science fiction in general and Robert A. Heinlein in particular, I’ve been hooked on the future. Futuristic cityscapes with fantastic architecture, amazing mass transit and flying cars (goddamit, where are the flying cars they promised us?!) never fail to catch my attention. Star Trek and Star Wars became my fascination; the fiction of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, Spider Robinson  and Joe Haldeman  became an escape from the doldrums of my high school years.

I dreamt of travelling to worlds both strange and fascinating aboard starships gleaming and beautiful, reflecting the glow of nebulae from their chrome hulls. I imagined what alien races would look like; would they resemble life on earth – reptilian, insectoid or even humanoid? Or would they look like something completely strange to us, shapes and sizes that even Lovecraft couldn’t imagine?

That continued as a young man and in a large extent right up to today. I still carry an affection for even badly made science fiction movies and get excited for films with even a hint of a sci-fi element to them. Even if it’s just a few years in the future, the advent of new technology is exciting. It is this feeling of a brave new world that has moved my support of the space program.

There are plenty of Proxmire sorts who think that NASA is an enormous boondoggle, a waste of money that can be put to better use solving earthly problems (you want to solve earthly problems? eliminate the freaking tax breaks for the rich – that will contribute far more to the bottom line than eliminating NASA ever would). I find that thinking incredibly short-sighted.

For one thing, the space program of the 60s has contributed so many industries to our economy that you could say that it paid for itself many times over. No, I’m not talking Tang and Velcro. I’m talking personal computers. Yup, computers used to fill entire rooms. NASA had to find a way to fit one in a vehicle not quite the size of a jumpy castle for kids parties. This spurred development in semi-conductors which would lead to new kinds of processors which form the heart of our modern PCs.

The cell phone industry wouldn’t be around without the space program. The satellites that orbit the planet which power the GPS devices that are commonly in use now are almost all launched by NASA. Those satellites were developed in part so that NASA could communicate with the astronauts who were on lunar missions.

Medical research has also benefitted from NASA. The artificial heart pump developed by Dr. Michael deBakey was inspired by the design of the space shuttle fuel pump.  Designs of space suits meant to be used in high heat situations are now being used to help burn victims.

There have been other, subtle benefits of the space program as well. Protocols developed by NASA to protect the astronauts from food poisoning on their long extra-terrestrial voyages are now in use by the FDA, leading to a significant drop in salmonella cases since those safety protocols were put in place. Restoration of 19th century paintings damaged in a church fire as well as an Andy Warhol painting vandalized in a Pittsburgh museum that were not restorable by conventional means were saved using technology developed by NASA to test materials for satellites that might otherwise be gradually eroded by high-atmosphere oxygen molecules that erode materials in spacecraft and satellites.

NASA has also found ways to utilize Teflon in space suits which have now been used in roofing for buildings and stadiums all over the United States. There are also parachutes that have been developed for NASA that are now in use in commercial and private small planes that have been credited with saving more than 200 lives.

But put that aside. As Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson commented on the Real Time with Bill Maher program earlier this year, the space program helped create an atmosphere of innovation that pervaded our culture for more than twenty years after the last Apollo mission. It was an atmosphere that encouraged innovation, of different disciplines working together to solve problems that led both directly and indirectly to new products, new industries and a robust economy.

As the space program has been marginalized over the past few decades once the moon landing was achieved, people have seen it as a relic, a government institution that has outlived its usefulness. After all, what has it accomplished since 1969 other than being a colossal waste of money and time? And in these days of economic stress, is there really a need to send up glorified city buses up to the International Space Station which in itself seems nothing more than a destination for Russian billionaires to live out their Buck Rogers fantasies.

The space program is much more than that. It provides innovation and it provides inspiration. Both are in short supply in our culture these days. I can understand the complaints against NASA. Truly, I can. I realize that there are plenty of things that need attention and funding right here on Earth. NASA is in the tomorrow business. The data that the Curiosity rover transmits today may not bear any fruit for months, years, even decades – but the sky crane that dropped it onto the Martian surface may pay dividends not only for future space exploration but here on earth as well.

There will always be problems on earth. Eradicating hunger, homelessness and hatred are going to take more than a budget and a plan and quite frankly, chances are that we aren’t going to ever eliminate the last of those. You can’t legislate smart and you can’t legislate thought. People will be idiots and bigots and there’s not much you can do to change that. Well, there is – you need to make education a good thing. A desirable thing. You have to put money into the school system and in paying the teachers properly. You need to emphasize science as a means of effecting change and technological improvement. You need to give kids dreams and goals; show them that hard work and tolerance for all cultures, creeds and beliefs is preferable to fear, mistrust and hatred. But that doesn’t seem to be in our DNA these days in terms of educational goals.

But what you can change is tomorrow. You can invest in tomorrow by aiming high now. Is there a reason to go to Mars? Hell yes! There are reasons to create habitations in space. There are reasons to send probes to the planets. It’s not just so eggheads can get work; it’s so that our fundamental understanding of how things work becomes more accurate. What does that do for us? Not just satisfying intellectual curiosity – it helps us understand the things that may threaten our species and how to prepare for them, be they asteroids from deep space or bursts of radiation from the sun that might irradiate the planet and wipe out all life on this very fragile rock. It also helps us discover new ways of looking at things – not the least of which is ourselves and our place in the universe. Is that practical? No. But it IS necessary.

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4 Responses

  1. all space stuff makes me think of my daddy:) i love this crap.. he loves this crap.. its all good… woohoo

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