2012.09.12 Lost in Space with Dan

Written by David Green.

Seattle resident Daniel Green promised his brother he would write a column sometime. He finally came through, although he was somewhat puzzled that he couldn’t make it funny. He said it’s not even Morenci-related until the end, and he urges readers to hold on “until the exciting conclusion.”

By DAN GREEN

Last week I was in a sandwich shop on my lunch break, chatting amiably with a man behind the counter. “I was up late last night,” I told him, “watching the Mars rover landing.” I was referring of course, to what NASA had accomplished the night before—safely landing a car-sized machine on the surface of Mars. This is what he said: “Oh, was that on Art Bell or something?”

In case you don’t know, Art Bell used to run a late-night radio show. Bell’s specialty was UFOs, conspiracy theories, monsters, ghosts, and the like. So I told the sandwich man, “No, this was reality.” He laughed. It scared me a little because I wondered how many other people don’t know what’s going on. I wondered how many know that reality is more exciting than a goofy radio show.  

I think space exploration is exciting and in my opinion, NASA is worth every penny we invest in it. Take a guess at how much of the national budget goes to NASA. Would you guess 10 percent or five percent? The truth is one-half of one percent. That’s what it costs to carry out some of the most bold and heroic science and exploratory missions in human history. 

I hear people ask why we need to spend our money in outer space when we have so many problems on Earth, so let’s put a little more perspective on the dollars. The latest NASA triumph was the Curiosity rover, a one-ton mobile science lab that was gently set down on the floor of a Martian crater in an amazing show of ingenuity. That mission cost around $2.5 billion. Let’s compare and contrast. In the last four years the Department of Defense spent $1.55 billion on military musical bands and performances. Every year Americans spend $22 billion on pizza.

I think we have enough money to cover both NASA and our problems at home. In any case, there’s no point in cutting something that has a big payback. We get a lot from our puny half-percent. For example, NASA research paved the way for the fleet of satellites currently orbiting the earth. If you’ve seen weather images from satellites, satellite TV, or used a GPS system, you can thank NASA for a big assist. 

We also get to learn about our “space neighborhood.” How does weather and climate work on other planets? That could be useful information. Was there ever life on Mars? Are there living microbes under the surface right now? We could learn quite a bit about ourselves by getting some answers.

Don’t forget the asteroids! I’ve heard a saying that asteroids are nature’s way of asking us how we’re coming along on our space program. It’s literally only a matter of time before a huge chunk of rock falls out of the sky and causes devastation. It will happen unless we’re smarter than the dinosaurs. If we learn how to get around in space and manipulate objects, we can eliminate the threat. Otherwise, dinos and people get the same entry in the cosmic history book. “Whacked by an asteroid. The end.”

Another comment I hear is that private companies are going to take over space exploration so we don’t need NASA. Wrong. Private companies will provide a shuttle bus to orbit and back. There’s money to be made doing that. They’re going to provide tourist rides into space. There’s profit there. Companies might mine asteroids if they can make the business model work.

This is great news. However, private enterprise won’t do the major research and development it takes to get probes (or people) onto the surface of Mars, or to the very interesting moons of Jupiter and Saturn. That takes the heavy lifting of a government-funded program. Much later, industry may find a profit motive to go there. Governments do the trailblazing. Take a close look at what NASA just accomplished and tell me that “the gol-durned guberment” can’t get anything done. 

We can be justly proud of our space program, although its budget for planetary missions was cut recently and we’ll see fewer of them as the years go by. If we don’t explore, others will step forward. India, China, Russia, Japan, Iran and the European Space Agency all have ambitious plans. 

Maybe we’re tired of innovation in this area. Maybe we’ll turn off our brains and listen to late night radio shows about UFOs. Maybe it will all work out for the best that way. Personally, I think if we choose to ignore the wonderful and sometimes scary reality of own solar system, we’ll pay a price. 

When I set out to write “By the Way” I didn’t think it would end up sounding like an editorial. That’s just how I feel about this subject. I don’t work in the space and aeronautics industry. I’m just a guy who read all the space and science fiction books in the Morenci library when I was a kid. Space travel was a dream then, but today it’s as real as we want it to be.

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