It’s hard to believe that less than six months ago President Barack Obama was talking about a “Sputnik moment.” In his State of the Union address he proposed huge investments in infrastructure, innovation and education to help us “win the future.”
The president still wants those investments, but nowadays he means something different when he talks about the need to “do something big.” At his news conference this week, “big” clearly referred to “tackling the deficit” and making the government “live within its means.”
Yes, saddling future generations with huge debt is irresponsible. But is avoiding that fate all we can aspire to as a country? Are we past the point of ambitious projects that stir the imagination of those of us who aren’t accountants?
Today’s scheduled launch of the space shuttle Atlantis ― the final ride of the 30-year-old shuttle program ― isn’t getting as much attention as it deserves, which is no big surprise. For all of its success in launching the Hubble Space Telescope and speeding other scientific advances, the shuttle program still gets little respect.
As the old NASA joke has it: The shuttle was supposed to be cheap and safe, and make space travel so common that it became boring. One out of three ain’t bad.
But the ho-hum routine of 133 successful shuttle missions (marred, of course, by the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003) shouldn’t blind us to the price we’re paying for moving into low gear on space flight. Just because space isn’t “revenue neutral” doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about it.
It’s not that funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is being slashed ― at least not yet. Before the current budget talks, it was scheduled to be about $20 billion a year over the next five years, which is a little more than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget.
Yet look where the space program sits now in the national conversation. If the Casey Anthony trial were still under way this week, the Atlantis launch might have been overshadowed altogether.
For some celestial inspiration, I consulted Alan Bean, who was a crew member on Apollo 12 before becoming a professional painter. His canvases evoke the majesty of space exploration.
Bean is a character. When I visited his art studio in Houston last year he showed me the gloves he wore while walking on the moon. On the sleeve were tiny pictures of naked Playboy Playmates to amuse him and the mission commander, Pete Conrad, while they completed their checklist of lunar duties.
This week Bean is in a sober mood as he contemplates the end of the shuttle program.
His first objection is practical. “I don’t sell my car until I buy a new one,” he says. “Right now, if we want to go anywhere, we’ll have to go on a Russian spaceship.”
The price for hitching a ride, of course, is about to go through the roof. For all the talk of privatizing space, public funding remains the only viable option. Unlike early aviation, which used mail delivery and passenger service to finance its rapid development, the business model for private space rides shows no signs of working, Richard Branson’s efforts notwithstanding. “You can’t make a profit on human space flight, it’s that simple,” Bean says.
That leaves NASA, which is experiencing a huge brain drain as thousands of engineers see lean times ahead and get out. After Obama announced a plan last year for NASA to work with private investors, Neil Armstrong wrote an open letter arguing that this “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”
Although Buzz Aldrin was more supportive of the president’s plan, no astronauts are satisfied with the level of public support for a robust space program.
The real issue, Bean says, is one of national vision.
“What have we done lately that we can be proud of as a nation?” he asks. “We’re not doing the things that great countries do.”
Most of today’s important new megaprojects, like rebuilding the electric grid, which Obama has been pushing in the face of hundreds of NIMBY objections, just aren’t sexy.
But there’s one, seemingly from the world of science fiction, that bears consideration. Russell Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9, has been advocating an ambitious plan to protect the Earth from asteroids. His organization, the B612 Foundation, is named for the asteroid the Little Prince lived on in the classic Antoine de Saint-Exupery story.
The goal is to prove that we can dock on an incoming asteroid and change its orbit with a series of explosions, so that it misses Earth. Since 1980, when scientists began to agree that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, the threat from cosmic objects has been taken more seriously. In the past decade, NASA has discovered more and more near-Earth objects, and identified more than a thousand “potentially hazardous asteroids.” If a large one of these were to hit a populous area, millions could die.
Like the unmanned NASA probes that are exploring vast stretches of the solar system, an anti-asteroid program would provide immense scientific benefits. In fact, the propulsion and power technologies involved in docking on an asteroid are keys to future deep-space missions.
According to the B612 Foundation, “this mission is conceptually very simple” and could be tried within five years on a small asteroid not immediately threatening the Earth.
You can already hear the guffaws from Washington: What a spacey idea! We can’t afford that now!
But we can, if we move government spending away from seniors, guns and tax breaks, and leave room for “something big” from above.
Then, maybe, we can begin to act like visionaries again.
By Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter, the author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.