Post #250. Sestercentennial, baby. Time for some introspection…
I’m not sure what to feel about the crescendoing success of SpaceX. On one hand, it’s awesome that we’ve arrived at a point in time when space travel is within reach of a smart company. SpaceX did a nice job broadcasting their launch/ISS docking, including lots of cheering and even a tear-wipe or two. You’d never get that from NASA (and that’s not a bad thing). It is cool to see them get emotional about it–as well they should. I hope they do more live-broadcasts and behind the scenes TV work. I hope they’re not all secretive about the awesome work they’re doing, like say, Apple would be. Or China.
And on that other hand, I worry that this event signals the beginning of the end for NASA. One thing that makes the work NASA does so incredible is that they do what they do because… someone should. Someone should walk on the moon, someone should evaluate the cosmic microwave background, someone should build the most badass space telescope ever and use it to learn the infinite secrets of the universe. Someone very seriously should do all those things–and much more–in space. Part of me worries that transferring the routine spacefaring work over to a private company is the first step of congress gradually scaling back and eventually pulling the plug on the whole thing. One amazingly great thing about public funding is that it goes to the PUBLIC good. One agonizingly bad thing about public funding is that it’s controlled by utterly short-sighted, duplicitous, and/or clueless plutocrats. AKA congressmen!
I see headlines about NASA planning a manned mission to Mars–in 2033–and I just sigh. Those kind of timelines are just pure talk. There’s no responsibility for something that’s supposed to happen 20 years from now, no accountability for the people who make those claims. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I sort of feel like it’s never going to happen unless we have another JFK moment where the man in charge says, “your objections are nice and all, but too bad, we’re going to Mars because I say we’re going to Mars, and there is nothing you can do to stop this.” That’s basically what JFK did. I read an interesting article that gave stats on the public approval ratings on the worth of the Apollo program and even right AFTER the moon landing, they maxed out at around 43% I think it said. Even in their moment of glory, less than half of Americans thought it was a worthwhile exercise. I do wonder, if they asked those same people today, with the context of history now putting it into perspective, what the percentages would be.
There’s a billboard I used to pass on my way home that’s advertising for an Alzheimer’s association. It shows a picture of an Apollo astronaut on the moon and asks “Do You Remember?” I think it’s poignant that out of every world event in the last century they could have picked, and even right over the top of personal events like your daughter’s wedding, or your favorite dog, or (insert personal joy of choice here), they picked the moon landing. THAT is the one thing that blew everyone’s collective mind and stands out brighter than anything. That is the one piece of history you simply cannot forget.
I saw a late night comedian once, lampooning the USA by comparing us to Michael Jackson, saying “It’s kind of sad when your greatest achievement is a moon walk that happened three decades ago.” OUCH! As someone who grew up watching the space shuttle take routine flights, it feels wrong that NASA has no manned launch vehicle now. I’ll enthusiastically say that it feels great to see an American company take up that mantle (or at least getting closer and closer now). But I worry that as private enterprise takes the lead, and we transfer over to a system that ruthlessly asks the question “what is the short term profit?” that human spaceflight could miss out on true glory while grubbing for coins.
If I can live to see one piece of history unfold, a man landing on mars would be far-and-away the thing I’d love to witness. When I look at that billboard with the astronaut, that’s what I think about. When will come THE moment for my generation, that piece of history you can never forget? Not a disaster or a scandal or a sporting event–but a true triumph of humankind. Those are rare. And accordingly meaningful. In 2033 I’ll be 53 years old. Will boots touch martian soil by the time I break 60 years of age? Will I live to see it at all?