The Space Shuttle completed its last flight just last week. Thirty years of a controversial, costly and spectacularly popular federal program came to a fairly quiet end. People all over the country follow the Space Program, its fabulous successes and its most tragic moments. How many federal programs gather a crowd of spectators on a regular basis? (OK, the Park Service is pretty good at that, but those guys are Kryptonite, they’ve got all the good toys.) Unlike many other federal programs, the Space Shuttle was not an end in and of itself, but a means to an end. It was part of broader research in basic science, the astronauts would do experiments and collect data and maintain equipment for scientists on Earth. Did it always pay off? Hard to say. Federal research programs tend to inspire researchers engaged in basic science to hone their creative writing skills—Yes!!! My research into inorganic molecular bonding will lead to a cure for cancer!!! Of course, every so often it does, so there you go. (Although I really do not think that cisplatin had anything to do with the Space Program, but maybe.)
I have to admit, for a college science major and a Star Wars/ Star Trek/ Lord of the Rings/ Westeros/ etc geek, I really have never been that much of a Space Program junkie. I’ve always been a bit, er, don’t we have enough problems without going out into the Universe looking for ET with an attitude problem and really, really, really good guns? I was shocked a few years ago to find out that NASA has as many employees as EPA, and that doesn’t count all the contractors, grant recipients, and employees of contractors grant recipients, subgrantees, cringing lackeys, camp followers and hangers on from California to Texas, Alabama and Florida, and all over the World. Having said that, both agencies are dwarfed by the Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services, and let’s not even talk about the Defense Department.
I have also long taken a somewhat cracked rear view of the impact of the Sputnik-driven Space Race mentality on everyday society. Maybe just my contrarian nature (Likely. I think sometimes I have a cracked rear view of everything.) Natural systems (particularly macroscopic ones) have far too many variables to ever determine exact answers, and human systems? Simply cannot be winnowed down to a simple quantitative analysis. Economic analyses, for instance, are typically based on the assumptions of perfect information and equal bargaining power. Right. Add up the numbers and get the answer? A little knowledge is . . . .
The Space Program was born of the rather odd notion that somehow America was at risk by being less smart and knowledgeable than the rest of the world. This is odd, not because there is anything particularly wrong about the notion that knowledge and thoughtfulness is good and leads to advancement, but that Americans are usually preoccupied by much more superficial values. The Space Program is about hope and optimism and the future and pushing back the boundaries of our own sense of place in fundamental ways, making our “Universe” bigger, maybe even someday opening our concept of civilization and unity to entities from another planet. Most federal programs are fundamentally borne of some sense of mawing need, depravation and irresistible risk. Although maybe it is just the way you frame it.
Over time, space flight has permeated every aspect of American culture, from Star Trek to Cowboys & Aliens. Uncounted American kids (including myself, really) have lived October Sky—on a less sublime scale—because of our cultural desperation to win a Space Race and then lap the whole rest of the World a few times. So the End Game of all the money and where it goes and does not go and what it does and does not do is more than one or two steps. The Law of Unintended Consequences does not always result in the negative after all. 🙂
So, the Russians have a manned space program now, and the United States does not. We still have a Space Program, just not manned space flight. And no real trajectory for returning to space, aside from piggy backing on the Russians and that Virgin Records guy.
What next? Hopefully, there will be a Middleground that keeps the dream alive even if the feet stay on the ground for awhile.