nasa vs. the bureaucrats
There’s a new president coming to the White House and with him, the possibility of a smaller budget for NASA, delays in space exploration programs and all the other unpleasantries that come with a painful budget cut. Space enthusiasts are of course aghast at this turn of events. Why would a progressive administration even think about cutting funding for something as important as space exploration? Weren’t liberal pundits penning tome after tome about how evil anti-science Republicans were slashing science budgets across the nation, undermining promising research out of shortsightedness and ideological spite? What’s going on here?
The looming battle over NASA’s budget is more than just an exercise in realpolitik. It reveals a clash of ideas and underscores how the space agency is viewed by the lawyers and business tycoons who tend to become our lawmakers. While space enthusiasts are floating in the skies and dreaming about taking vacations on Mars by 2055 (I should know, I’m one of them), our current generation of lawmakers still think of NASA in its original designation. You see, NASA wasn’t founded to boldly go anywhere but the Moon. It was an agency given one goal. Beat the Reds to the lunar surface. Each flight into space built on the accomplishments of the last one, tested new technologies and brought the agency one step closer to its ultimate goal.
Ironically, this myopic focus is what made NASA so successful. Beating the USSR was a matter of national pride and there’s no such thing as not enough money for national pride. Whatever billions were needed were approved and doled out. Whoever needed to be brought in to help would be made available. Science and math were emphasized in school and in pop culture. All the time, money and sacrifice was worth it to beat the Soviets and win the space race. But when the race was won, NASA had become a victim of its own success, making some lawmakers and citizens raise their brows and wonder aloud why we should keep going to the Moon if the space race was over. It was hit even harder when American attention was turned to the Vietnam War and the cultural clash at home.
Domestic problems have become paramount. Having accomplished its mission, NASA was a bunch of dreamers on a government payroll and that’s how it’s still seen today. Space travel is considered routine nowadays and after a major cultural shift, people no longer care about the concept of space exploration. Math and science fell from being vital to being the butt of jokes by politicians talking about how they never got science and math was way too hard to seem a little more folksy in a backhanded way. (If politicians think that math and science are too hard for the average person to grasp, aren’t they implying that we’re stupid?) Space exploration and anything that has to do with it other than showing other nations who’s boss has been labeled totally unrealistic and unimportant.
So today, when lawmakers want to cut NASA’s budget, they don’t think of it as crippling some sort of vital research. They’re used to the idea that if it takes more than three to five years to get a return on your investment, the project is a pointless pie-in-the-sky dream. Instead, they see it as telling the kids to put their toys away and go do their homework. Reality is cruel and in ours, cynical, pragmatic and impatient lawmakers who are usually not blessed with an active imagination or much foresight can and do lord over creative thinkers, scientists and dreamers who dedicate their lives to turning our wildest fantasies into science fact.