There’s been a lot of talk lately about the budget cuts facing NASA, and indeed they are deep, and correspondingly tragic. I’m sure the space crowd around here is already well versed, so we’ll skip the rehash.
But I do want to remind us all that there are ultra-sweet projects nearing fruition: budget cuts can’t stop Curiousity, which is well on its way to the red planet. The biggest, baddest rover that ever was! That thing is going to get new high scores, starting in August.
And, despite gobbling up all the money that could have been used for myriad enticing small projects, the James Webb Space Telescope will be built and launched. One could make a very strong case that this was the wrong decision, in light of the opportunity costs in scrapped missions the Webb consumed, but I say hey, what recent space project has done more to raise public interest in astronomy than Hubble? I mean, I’d put Hubble at #2 behind the Apollo missions in terms of ability to get people fired up and fascinated with the sky. Having a brand new, next generation eye up in space is going to create better images than ever before. Pretty pictures are important, to capture the imaginations of new generations.
In the end, it is sad that our national priorities are what they are–jeez, on MANY levels! As the SETI infographic highlighted, there is a massive disconnect between planning for an inevitable future (ie space exploration/research) versus how our money/resources get burned away at the altar of short-term profit (war profiteerism/exploitation of natural resources with disregard to the planet/etc)
Out of everything I’ve done on this website, that infographic brought way more people through the door than everything else combined. Even almost a year later there is a steady trickle of visitors every single day who come here to look at that. What does that say? I’d venture it says there’s a large group of people out there who agree that our destiny, as an evolving lifeform, lies beyond the shore of the cosmic ocean, here on Earth. And by extension, it means that our survival depends on knowing the Universe. How well can we explore it, exploit its treasures and avoid its dangers? The answer to our ultimate fate lies in how much effort we are willing to devote into these things.
What would it take to shift our societal priorities away from petty conflicts and toward the next horizon? There’s no way of saying. But Curiosity and James Webb are two powerful steps toward raising public awareness that hey, there is this giant thing called the Cosmos; it’s all around us and inconcievably more vast, richer, and filled with more splendor than Earth alone could ever hold. Seriously. We should go check that out. We should be part of that. To the people already abundantly aware of it, it’s easy to feel like maaaan, why aren’t we doing this already? Why did we cancel Apollo? Why haven’t we set foot on Mars yet? Why does our brain power go to work on Wall Street, instead of at JPL? Don’t they understand that we have places to GO?
I definitely feel that myself. But I also remind myself that it’s still less than one century since the theory of “island universes” became an accepted idea. It takes time to build concensus. It took eons for life to evolve from the sea to the land, and it will take perhaps a long time for humankind’s larger consciousness to grasp what the revelations of the last century in astronomy actually means for us all. I have to admit, I feel it does say something dark and disturbing about our society that we should develop fusion bombs well before fusion powerplants. But I keep hope that as James Webb lifts the veil from the great cosmic metropolis stretching to infinity in all directions, and as Curiousity digs to find martian secrets in our veritable backyard, it will open more eyes.
Open more eyes to the unavoidable truth that the Universe is beyond our vocabulary for Ancient, Boundless, and Beautiful. It has existed for longer than the word Epochs can articulate and it will continue unaffected when we are gone. An extension of our word for “nature,” the cosmos is equally stuffed to the brim with magnificence as it is with impartiality toward the folly of its minor tenants. The sooner we awaken to our own frailty and societally grok the rarity, the sacredness of life, the better our chances to gain that lucky opportunity to be part of this cosmos, to savor it and chronicle it.
To me, that’s the truth that Webb will awaken in more people. Curiosity is the other prong; doing. Being able to know what’s out there and prepare to go ourselves. That’s the part where the “homo” genus get to, you know, not become extict someday. But in order to get there, we need to prioritize it. We need the vision to see. Fortunately we’re going to get the most powerful set of eyeglasses yet, launching around 2018………