Monday, July 20, 2009

Real Astronauts Want Real Frontiers

Some of the original Apollo astronauts aren't happy with the sorry state of the American space program.

NASA is finishing construction of the station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations, and plans to retire the shuttle fleet next year. After that, the United States plans to pay Russia to ferry crews to the outpost, which orbits 225 miles above Earth.

"We've spent a lot of money up there for almost nothing. It's almost a white elephant," Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell said. "Until we can really get a return on our investment on that particular project, then it was money wasted."

The United States spent about $25 billion, in 1969 dollars, on the Apollo project. The investment, which consumed about 4 percent of the federal budget, was returned many times over, the astronauts said.

"We now seem to think it's too much to put 0.6 percent into the NASA budget," said Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham. "That is idiotic in my opinion."

I agree with them in part: the space program is in shambles, and President Obama's mini-rhetoric today didn't exactly bring back visions of JFK. Obama is focused on destroying this nation's ability to do great things, not do great things. (But that's socialism for you.)

The problem with the space program is that it is still designed, operated and controlled by the government. One president may be gung ho for a Mars project (like Bush 43), where another seems content to let the Russians and Chinese have all the fun. As long as there is no long-term continuity, this will be the case.

If there are rewards in space, and I believe there are, then we should unshackle people to go find them. Let's not get all "we are the world" and expect a consortium of nations to accomplish anything meaningful. The International Space Station is a shiny, bright tinkertoy in the sky, but it's a fragile toy that is focused on "earth science" to such an exent that nothing else seems to get done.

Damn it! We need to send real men back to the Moon to mine it for minerals. Maybe build a solar power collection station that could beam power back to the Earth, come rain or shine. Maybe build factories to design a new generation of interplanetary exploration ships that would use moon-stuff as fuel, and the Moon as a convenient launching post to Mars, where we know there is water.

If we opened a Real New Frontier in space it would inspire and challenge young people, instead of merely shackling the youth with Cap'n Tax schemes, pseudo-volunteerism appeals and the golden chain of guaranteed health care.

That's what we're gonna get, and if Obama is successful, that's all we're gonna have.

But we'll always have Tranquillity Base.

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