Saturday, January 10, 2004

Bad moon rising
I was a kid in the sixties. Among other things, that means I grew up during the waning days of whiggish faith in technological progress, which is just a big-word way of justifying being a space geek. By the twenty-first century, I expected to be able to take a monorail, jetpack, or flying car out to the nearest spaceport and whiz off to a cheap lunar vacation or even just a weekend jaunt on my three-day weekends. And although my enthusiasm for all things space related continues unabated, I am not in the least impressed with Bush’s Moon and Mars proposal.

There are endless reasons to object to this plan, but let me mention just the three that tick me off the most.

We can’t afford it. I hate to have to say this because this is the perennial objection of opponents of basic research in general and the space program in particular. As a fan of science and space it really gripes me to have to be on their side on this one. I think a big open-ended project with an inspiring goal like the original moon program is a great idea. It would do wonders for the country, by giving people something bigger than their grubby lives to work toward. It would provide a huge works program for middle class professionals, the people who contribute the most to charity and local economies. It would have countless positive unintended consequences (the opponents of space research sneer that the moon program’s only practical results were Tang and Teflon. They are wrong. It produced quantum leaps in materials technology, medical monitoring, and computing). However, in three short years, the Bush administration has made such a basket case out of our economy that we can’t afford a big investment in anything that won’t produce an immediate financial return. Clinton could have afforded it and Bush could have afforded it before his first idiotic tax refund for his rich peers. Today our government can’t afford science.

It’s bad science. There is very little to be learned by going to the moon that hasn’t already been learned by going to the moon. Sending a robot to the moon is vastly cheaper than sending a human to the moon, and we don’t declare an entire generation traumatized when a robot makes a crater instead of a smooth landing. We have two space programs that are in direct competition for the same dollars. One program is for pure science; what can we learn about the universe beyond the surface of our planet. The other is to learn how to send people into space; the goal of such is to solve engineering problems, not to create knowledge. The former can help the latter quite a bit. The latter can only very rarely help the former. We need both, but a very careful balance must be struck between the two. A massive manned program will destroy that balance. The Bush administration is aware of that and has decided to completely give up science.
Sources said Bush will direct NASA to scale back or scrap all existing programs that do not support the new effort. Further details about the plan and the space agency's revised budget will be announced in NASA briefings next week and when the president delivers his FY 2005 budget to Congress.

The space shuttle nearly destroyed hard space science for NASA. During the entire eight years of the Reagan administrations, no new scientific missions were initiated. The United States can only support a couple of big science projects at a time. During Republican administration we can usually afford one or two, and those are safest if they can claim some military utility. Bush’s space fleet might sound cool, but it would essentially mean the end of federal science spending in the USA. We would have no particle research, no advanced biotech, no fusion research, no nanotech, and no global warming research. Maybe that’s the point.

They aren’t going to do it anyway. But my biggest objection is that I think it’s a load of crap. This is the most nakedly political administration in the history of the republic. As we work or way up to the State of the Union address, Bush’s handlers will come up with a whole slew of “bold” initiatives (I know, “bold” was last year’s word. I haven’t yet received the RNC memo on this year’s word). “Old people dieing because of the price of medical care? Promise them cheap drugs. Soccer moms think we’re cold hearted; Hispanics aren’t voting for us? Promise to be nice to immigrants. Educated boomers think we lack vision? Promise them Mars. Just make sure there are no measurable milestones before the election.”

Even Greg Easterbrook knows it's a boondoggle: "[W]hy might George W. Bush endorse a Moon base or Mars mission? Either he's a science illiterate surrounded by advisors who are science illiterates, or it's a blank check for aerospace contractors." Bastards. They're just ridiculing our dreams. I wouldn’t trust this crowd if Rove himself came to my house and gave me my jetpack.

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