Amid all the noisy debates about how much we'll spend on bailouts, healthcare, education and war, NASA is quietly rocketing its way towards an $18.7 billion budget for 2010, which is $2.4 billion more than it got to spend in 2008 under President Bush. Our new chief of state evidently agrees with some leading conservatives on the full agenda that NASA plans -- not only climate-change research and safe retirement of the aging shuttle, but also returning to the Moon...and establishing a base on Mars as well. Obama's budget puts his personal stamp of approval on the idea of "exploring the mysteries of the universe."
What impact will this huge budget item have on Planet Earth? Especially the U.S.? I wonder. This is one of those issues, like the Wall Street meltdown, that are GLBT issues because they will impact our quality of life in ways other than civil rights. (Not to mention those of us who might be out astronauts if Obama follows through on his rumored intention to end DADT.)
I get it that NASA means thousands of U.S. jobs -- that it means a high-prestige goal for the improved science education that Obama would like to see in our schools. But getting Americans back to the Moon, and getting ourselves to Mars, ought to be back-burnered until we have a budget surplus. With so many citizens out of work and housing, and so many of us lacking healthcare, and two wars draining the country, and the threatened collapse of Mexico's government into drug terrorism becoming a possible third war right on our southern border, it's almost obscene to talk about a high priority on "exploring the mysteries of the universe."
What we need to solve is the "mystery of how to get our people employed and our country back to a budget surplus and a trade surplus again."
Now and then, I find myself arguing this subject with friends who are still starry-eyed over the idea of going into space.
Space travel has been an American dream ever since the 1950s, as movie and TV sci-fi hits fueled the fantasy that space travel would be a slam-dunk once we mastered a few technical tricks. The more politically minded of my pro-space friends remind me that the resources out there are alluring -- for instance, the Moon's abundance of helium 3, a non-polluting nuclear fuel. Think tanks have all kinds of plans for the Moon, including solar power stations that could operate 24/7, since the Moon keeps the same face turned to the Sun at all times. Movies like "Alien" and "Star Wars," with their cargo ships hopping from planet to planet, have somehow convinced a lot of us that space commerce would become as everyday as 16-wheelers on our freeways.
But space exploration confronts us with a finance gap that is light-years wide. It is dizzyingly expensive, and comes at a dizzying cost to any government that undertakes it, with dizzyingly costly accidents and technical failures along the way. If we think that Wall Street bailouts took a lot of billions, wait till we see the real-life trillions that it will surely take to maintain a few humans in a base on the Moon, let alone establishing anything liveable on Mars. It falls into a category with other grandiose projects that bankrupted nations -- like China's building a great trading fleet in the early 1400s, which left the Chinese empire flat on its back.
As for the idea of humanity moving permanently to a new home in space, I think that the average Americans who burble about this haven't thought seriously about what they're asking for, which is this: a few elite folks spending gazillions of dollars to bail out of Earth, leaving the rest of us here to choke on problems that never got solved.
The Soviet Syndrome
For a scary example of what happens to a government that puts space ambitions ahead of earth-bound needs, we can look at the Soviet Union.
Back in the 1960s when the Soviets launched the world's first manned flight, their space program may have brought them a fleeting public-relations victory. But, coupled with the USSR's massive military spending, especially the Soviet-Afghan war, the space program helped to drain vital resources away from the Soviet civilian economy. Result: a tragic deterioration of quality of life for its citizens that sparked a growing outrage. By the 1980s, the USSR was in such deep economic trouble that it had to cut back its space program. But the move came too late to stop the downward spiral.
After the USSR collapsed in 1989, and all its former members went their own way as independent countries, Russia established its own Russian Federal Space Agency, which has shaken hands with NASA in joint efforts around Mir and our own space station. How did Russia manage this seeming miracle of reviving their space program? Because In recent years the Russian economy rebounded, thanks to increased exports of their oil and gas, which provided some cash to spend on a planned Moon orbiter, as well as Venus and Mars probes. Russia aims to stake her legal claims to all those alluring resources out there in space, and this has the U.S. worried. But are things any better for the average Russian citizen these days? That's debatable.
My point is -- the resurrected Russian space program, and its bid to control lunar and Mars resources, came at the cost of the Soviet Union's very existence. Imagine the following parallel situation: the United States going through a similar crash-and-burn, with every state going its own way as an independent country. California would emerge as its own country, and would aim to launch its own space program to replace the old NASA. To do that, California would have to find resources to export, in order to end its horrific budget deficit and put together the spare cash for its aerospace industry to launch a space program. We might forget about environmental concerns and allow unlimited drilling for oil and gas along our shores. We might revive California's flagging agricultural engine by making it ever more corporate, high-output and export-oriented.
But the price of California's survival as an independent republic would come as a result of the vanishing of the U.S. Despite the ideological differences between the USSR and the U.S., this possible parallel should give us some food for thought.
I, for one, don't believe in pie in the sky -- in the fantasy of going somewhere else at the cost of saving our country here and now. For the time being, NASA's jobs and scientific resources should be kept focused on practical programs that benefit the more earthly and socially oriented of America's needs.
Current NASA budget overview