From the moon to Mars
Posted: Friday, April 23, 2010 8:02 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON – President Obama’s decision to cut back on NASA’s Constellation rocket program prompted strong reaction, with the astronauts who were first and second to set foot on the moon leading the charge with opposing positions. Neil Armstrong, who rarely speaks out in public, sent a letter to the White House strongly objecting to the cancellation of the next manned mission to the moon, warning that valuable technological expertise would be lost if the program is no longer funded.
Armstrong made legitimate points, and they resonated with a generation of Americans who remember the burst of patriotic pride when President Kennedy during his all too short time in office pledged to put a man on the moon. Kennedy couldn’t have envisioned the wide variety of satellite technology that emerged from America’s journey into space, but he took it on faith that there would be a variety of benefits.
There still exists a romantic notion that whatever we do in space is bound to yield discoveries that will repay many times over the investment that it takes. But is going back to the moon, where we’ve been, the best route in trying economic times to fulfill the American dream? Buzz Aldrin, who was right behind Armstrong to step on the moon in 1969, spoke out in favor of Obama’s plan.
The Constellation program had fallen victim to cost overruns and was way behind schedule.
And shifting NASA’s destination from the moon to an asteroid by 2025 and then Mars by 2035 is a positive and realistic way to move into the future, not the death knell for NASA the way Obama’s critics portray it. Indeed, Obama traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to announce he was adding $6 billion to the space program over the next five years as he rearranged NASA’s priorities.
Pulling the plug on another manned mission to the moon at the same time the administration is pledging not to develop a next generation of nuclear weapons as part of a new Strategic Arms Treaty with Russia creates unease that Obama may be giving up America’s tremendous edge in science and technology. Historically, that expertise has given the United States great advantages over the rest of the world.
What if we’re surrendering the lead we have and opening the door to a lesser power?
These are legitimate concerns, but Obama’s reasoning on NASA seems well-founded. Technology is a matter of choice. We’ve been to the moon. It seems entirely appropriate to set our next goals in space to learn about what we haven’t explored, and that means Mars and asteroids and black holes. The Hubble telescope was a great advance; it allowed us to see into deep space. Maybe there’s a newer version of Hubble that we can launch for further exploration.
Obama hasn’t compromised America’s thirst for knowledge, or its technological edge, but he has exercised his right as president and commander in chief to choose among those areas of exploration that seem to him most promising. History is filled with examples where judgment comes into play, creating winners and losers. Remember the Super Collider? Abandoned in Texas where it was regarded as a boondoggle, the science migrated to Switzerland where the jury is still out as to whether it can replicate the Big Bang and uncover the mystery of the creation of the universe. Then there was the Concorde SST jet that gave the Europeans an edge for a time, but that ultimately proved unsafe and uneconomical. Picking and choosing among technologies involves knowing when to move away from a World War I battleship to a World War II aircraft carrier, or when to shift from the moon to Mars.
Published in The Messenger 4.23.10