Nevertheless, I've heard rumbles. Rumbles that it's too expensive, that it's a waste of money that would be better spent on Earth - it is a little-known secret that the liquid fuel of rockets is actually a superchilled slurry of $100 bills, and the electronics packages of satellites are just wads of old fives - that with millions of Americans unemployed and the world staring down the barrel of a renewed depression, space is something that we just can't afford. That it's time to hunker down, close the shutters, and nail down what we can while we wait for the storm to pass - and then once the skies clear, we can see what's still standing, and only then figure out whether the winds are good for throwing ourselves back into space... until the next storm comes, that is.
While I think that NASA would be better off getting out of the space truck business sooner rather than later, using launchers built to spec by private industry now that there is such a thing as a private space industry rather than doing that grunt work itself, for the moment new NASA projects are valuable. Whether it's a new rocket, a cutting-edge space telescope, or just another perspective on our place in the universe, the things that NASA provides have a vitality that no other government program can hope to match. NASA gives us things that are uplifting, that take us away from the dirt beneath our feet and allow us to feel the solar wind in our hair.
I don't buy the argument that the United States can't afford to maintain its space program. For me, arguments like that lost all potency when the government shoveled hundreds of billions of dollars into the drooling maws of bankers who shattered the world economy through their high-stakes gambling and came snivelling for cash when their bets went bust. Compared to that, compared to pretty much everything else the government does, NASA is pocket change. At no point in my lifetime has NASA's budget ever represented more than 1.05% of the United States federal budget. For 2011, it's getting $18.7 billion, which sounds like a lot... but not in the context of the largest economy on Earth.
Investment in systems such as this are investments in the future.
"Projects that are future-oriented, that, despite their political difficulties, can be completed only in some distant decade are continuing reminders that there will be a future. Winning a foothold on other worlds whispers in our ears that we're more than Picts or Serbs or Tongans: We're humans."
- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
The future is in danger these days. I can understand why, but it's still disturbing. People don't give much thought to the future when the present is uncertain, but that lack of thought undermines the foundation of the future. We owe it to ourselves to look ahead, to lift our eyes from the ground and force ourselves to look ahead, to step out of the shadows of discontent and fear we've been living in for years - to remind ourselves that one day things will be better. Things will be better, and if we take action along those lines today, that better time may not be too long after tomorrow.
Carl Sagan is right in that NASA's projects have not produced a lot of things that have "bread on the table" practical value compared to other major government projects like, say, the construction programs of the New Deal. But what's easy to overlook is that people can't live on bread alone. We need something more, a reason to move forward, something that tells us to look up and envision a better time - something that reminds us that there will be a better time. In these days, when pessimism is rampant and society is pulling the blinds tight, that sort of hope is valuable in a way that can't be demoninated in dollar signs. An optimistic society is a dynamic society, capable of great deeds. A pessimistic society, a society that believes the highest virtues are austerity and quiet desperation, is on a course to despair and irrelevancy.
Days like this, we need the future. The Space Launch System may yet help bring it here.