I’m a huge geek for space flight. I’m not sure why it’s called “manned” when there are women doing it now, and I’m as puzzled about calling it “flight” when it can and often is done without wings, but even so, I geek out in a major way whenever I run across a book or photo or web site that has anything to do with manned space flight. Geeking out isn’t about trying to make sense of it. It’s a Pavlovian response. Or is it? Maybe it’s not conditioned; maybe I was wired that way at birth.
Whatever. If I’d had the brains to do it, I would’ve gotten a couple PhD’s just for the privilege of working for a manned space flight program no matter how frivolous or questionable the motives for pursuing it are. I know the whole point of landing a man on the moon was to win a political argument. So what? It was still pretty cool. And our nation devotes a lot of time, energy and money to other political arguments – immigration, war, those kinds of things – that aren’t nearly as awesome as flying in space, supposedly because they’re important and space flight is pointless. “What are you going to do in space?” goes the argument. Well, you could live there. Takes a while and a lot of hard work to figure out how, but it could be done.
And if the argument against manned space flight is even more basic, if all that the argument against it boils down to is, “Why?” I’d answer, Because somebody is going to do it. In the whole of history, we’ve climbed into ships and gone as far as we could, and now that we’ve figured out that we can go to space, the move to working and then living in space is inevitable. It has to happen, because that’s what we do.
Actually, it’s happening. Right now. There are people living on a space station in orbit above us. They’ve been living in it for years, and will go on living in it for years, and they’re doing it mostly to figure out how to go on living in space for generations to come. If you think that’s not freaking awesome, then what is?
I got all wound up about this after astronomer Pamela Gay, appearing on a panel at the annual TAM science meeting, got shut down by astrophysicist Neal de Grasse Tyson after she made the comment that manned space flight was “kind of awesome … but there isn’t the budget in the world right now to do it right.” You cannot say that kind of thing around Neal (he lets me call him Neal) without expecting a broadside in return:
I’ve got to rebut that: To say there’s no budget in the world – the federal budget is three point something trillion dollars … It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s that we have chosen to not afford it. … The U.S. bailout of the banks exceeded the 50-year budget of Nasa. If you want to do something with three and a half trillion dollars, you can do whatever you want, whatever you judge to be important to the profile of the nation. The Nasa budget is four-tenths of one percent of a tax dollar. If I cut into a tax dollar four-tenths of one percent, it doesn’t even get into the ink! So I will not accept the statement that we cannot afford it.
Yeah. What he said.