If you allow me the indulgence, I’d like to once again take an article about something not exactly all that relevant to science and technology, and go off on an important tangent. In this case, the article is a rumination on American exceptionalism and the seeming insecurity of a wide swath of Americans who constantly need to be assured that their country is still number one at everything no matter what happens. Now, exercises in armchair anthropology are a political pundit’s bread and butter so it’s actually surprising that there aren’t even more pieces like this, but what does it have to do with science? Well, it features a very critical review of the previous president’s shot at reaching for the stars just like the nation did in its heyday…
When George W. Bush suggested in 2004 a manned mission to Mars, the proposal was mocked to death. Rightly so, perhaps, because it smacked of desperation and, what’s more, [was] designed to distract attention from troubling events and setbacks elsewhere.
Sounds about right and as far as the article is concerned, enough attention has been paid to it so we can move on. But for me there’s something even more important here. Certainly, many a space exploration enthusiast would object to mocking a manned mission to other worlds, taking it as a symptom of a society losing its ambition in favor of mundane, self-induced misery, but this is actually one of those cases where criticism is appropriate. What was being proposed was a flag planting mission, a chance for NASA to send astronauts to Mars to do some solid science, which is actually a very good idea, but more so, a chance for politicians to chant something patriotic as the lander touches down, check the red planet off the to do list, and gut the program as soon as the flights became too routine for the public. Keep in mind that even those who enjoyed tuning in as the unfortunately now late Neil Armstrong took his one small step, mostly thought the whole thing was a giant waste of time and money, and supported it only because it would prove that of the newly minted post-world war superpowers, the United States was the greatest.
When we let politicians plan our missions, this is what we get. Science is turned into a major PR project and as soon as the been-there-done-that effect sets in with the voters, they cancel the whole thing. Just think about the possibilities if NASA went forward with its plans for future lunar expeditions. There were drafts for lunar bases and the longer stays on the surface would allow a lot more research and science necessary to confirm a building site and lay down the foundation for a permanent outpost on another world. The advances in medicine and technology to treat all sorts of degenerative conditions and exposure to radiation would’ve been amazing, and when a colonized Moon was ready to become a launch pad to Mars and beyond, we would’ve seen even more of a research and development spike. This was a vision for the future that motivated many young men and women to go into the STEM fields, hoping to be part of this amazing journey at a very special moment in history. The politician’s response? Well, we beat the commies, yank the nerds’ funding, we need it for riders! The 2004 proposal would’ve been an encore of that.
Yes, I’ve written about the problems with listening to technocrats a little too much, and do realize that we can’t live in a world where budgets are dictated by research labs and billions are handed over without question for every blue sky idea. But we’re so far away from a world like that, we’d need to shift how almost $1 trillion in tax receipts is being spent before we start worrying. In truth, we’re living in another extreme, in which politicians who spend the vast majority of their tenure in campaign mode, and whose vision generally extends only to the next election, dictate the course of our technological and scientific advancements. And being completely ignorant in the subject matter doesn’t faze them one bit as they treat big projects and highly innovative concepts with thinly veiled disdain, looking at them from a purely political standpoint. Rather than wonder how many jobs the project can create, its practical applications, and its contribution to all of us in the grand scheme of things, they size it up for its potential to be cited as a waste of money and time in an attack ad by an equally self-absorbed, visionless politico. If it wasn’t for the sheer good will and prestige build up by NASA, they would gut space exploration completely, and if it wasn’t for DARPA and the military, robotics research would be nowhere near as well funded.
Consider living in a future in which politicians didn’t decry the price tag of exploration with such antagonism and embraced the idea that guided expansion into space came with huge benefits, hosting competitions for the most innovative and feasible ideas and designs to bring the space stations, robots, and cyborgs imagined in the 1970s and 1980s by this point in time, from retro speculation to science fact. We can grumble and say that these things aren’t very practical, but building the first houses and farms, then protecting them from marauders and weather, instead of carrying on with hunting and gathering and living in caves wasn’t all that practical either once upon a time. Computers and satellites were once luxuries for a small clutch of people and few believed that anyone outside of the military or various scientific research labs would ever have a use for the internet, hypertext, or large scale satellite imagery and communications. But we took a risk, we tried, and now look where we are. The exotic, bizarre projects of the 1950s and 1960s are today’s defining pillars of the First World. All it took was vision and patience, traits that are sorely missing from today’s political scene and stamped out when they are.
And at risk of repeating myself ad naseum, those who ask "why would we possibly spend any tax money on this when we need more jobs," need to consider that all these things aren’t just going to get built and tested by themselves. Contractors, universities, private companies hoping to win a contract through a competition, and government agencies, will need to, gasp, hire experts and support staff to engineer the complicated new machinery and perform highly involved tests that will require specialized equipment. You cannot outsource such high end research because just a small handful of nations in the world have the state of the art labs and facilities to do it, and of all those countries, the United States is the most innovative and technologically advanced thanks to its mix of first rate colleges and their wide collaborative networks stretching across the globe. We know the benefits of the research and development involved in these high brow projects, and we have plans for what to do with the technology if we had it. The real reason why we’re not making it happen is because the politicians refuse to do their job. They would much rather spend their time in the partisan muck, flinging insults at each other and fueling the party faithful.