So I watched the Shuttle return to flight the other day, and even though it's the obsolete 30-year-old VW microbus of space, the Winne-space-go, Nixon's grand compromise to keep all the employees involved in the space program (good for the Republicans in Congress) but take away all the destinations, even though all of that is true, it's still an amazing vehicle. But its recent trials do raise some questions, like the big one above, the same question that's been asked for as long as humans have been travelling into space.

In his New York Times article about FMARS (the Mars Society's analog research station in the Canadian arctic), journalist John Tierney put it like this:

The Discovery, meanwhile, is gazing at its navel. The astronauts' primary mission is to discover, with the aid of new cameras trained on the shuttle, whether it's safe for them to be up there...

Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press put it little differently, when he confronted the Nasa* administrator Dr. Michael Griffin last night (31 July, 2005). He held up a Gallup poll which asked:

"Do you think the US should fund a Mars mission?"

And of course, no real surprise, 60% said no. The Nasa administrator smiled like a man defending a parapet, and asked Tim if he had stopped beating his wife. He then said, roughly:

"The average American's tax bill is around $8,000 per year. Of that, Nasa gets $60. 15 cents per day.† That's fifty times less what goes on defence. We're gonna spend that money to keep open our access to space. So, if we're spending that money anyway, where do you want us to go? What do you want us to invest that money in? Put the question that way, Tim, and people want to go to Mars."

Not too bad, as answers go, but it had some problems. Namely, to Mr. and Mrs. Trailer-Park it sounded like he said:

"Tim, you're a wife-beater. We're spending this money whether you like it or not, you morons. Defence, pshaw. And we'll spend your $60.15 per day† however we want, so there!"

Since John Trailer-Park Jr. is in Eye-Rack, his mom and pop were pretty pissed off that Mr. Egghead wants to spend DFens money on a bunch of holidays in space. And, of course, no-one except the university educated understands the wife-beating reference anyway, except to imagine themselves in Tim's place punching that Nasa guy's lights out. Call me a wife-beater, huh?! Why, I oughta...Pow! Right to the moon!

And I got kind of sad because if I had been in the chair, I would have said something like this:

"All the money we invested in Apollo, in going to the moon, was controversial at the time, Tim. People said 'Why burn that money going to space when we can spend it here on Earth?' Well, Tim, the fact is that money WAS spent on Earth. That money gave us reliable weather sats so we can see when storms are going to hit and batten down the hatches, better bearings and seals to make our cars more powerful and use less gas. That money gave us dozens of advances in computing, hardware and software. That money gave us sunglasses, smoke detectors, cordless drills. That money gave us pacemakers, much of medical imaging, helped us know how to make things both light and strong, and took air travel from being unsafe and noisy through to the smooth safe cheap comfort of the jet age. Just about the only thing in our modern lives we didn't get from the space program is Tang. Tang's just powdered sugar, Tim, and has been on supermarket shelves since 1959!

"But the best thing that the Apollo program bought us was not a thing. The greatest benefit of Apollo was tens of thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of kids in the sixties and seventies who studied science. Human space exploration is the best advertising campaign imaginable for kids studying science! Learn your maths, we say with every rocket we launch from the cape, and you can be part of pioneering the stars! And those hundreds of thousands of kids are now hard at work, making our lives more enjoyable, safer and longer; curing cancer; working to understand and repair our environment; hard at work in industry inventing the next kind of engine that we'll use in our cars when the oil runs out. Imagine running your car on hydrogen, Tim! That stuff makes top-fuel look like cooking oil!

"Every single dollar spent on the space program is spent right here on the ground, Tim, where it's needed. Ok, going to Mars, what does that buy us? Do you want the long list or the very long list? Better ways to keep our homes warm in winter and cool in summer while paying less every power bill. Better protective clothing for all those hardworking men and women who do the tough jobs to keep this country running. Smart fabrics that have the potential to revolutionize the clothes we wear. Further advances in solar power, batteries, power transmission systems. And, of course, the big one, the search for tiny microbial life on Mars, perhaps hidden in subsurface water, that has the potential to rewrite the book of life, and give us medical insights we can't even begin to imagine.

"And it's cheap, Tim. We get all that for the 15 cents a day that every American spends, through their taxes, on the space program. And the money is spent right here on Earth. The investment's all here, but the returns are, literally, out of this world."

But, then, they'd probably have cut me off for time...


Additional Comments:

  • † $60 a day or 15 cents a day?! Yes, I know. It's a feature, not a bug. That's actually the way Mike Griffin (accidentally) said it. Check the transcript, link above. It's around $60 per year, which works out to 15 cents per day.
  • * Nasa vs. NASA - many modern newspaper styleguides point to "word" acronyms being written as such. So FBI and UN stay that way, but Nato and Nasa, for two, are written as capitalised words. If you really, really object to this, I hope to be able to discuss it with you before you dismiss me as some grammar barbarian.
  • Thanks to the three e2 members who took the time to send me detailed objections/comments/encouragement. You know who you are, and you make all this worthwhile.

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