Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Space: The Final Frontier

NASA, the government's great symbolic vestige of the cold war,is once again under scrutiny. Thanks to the shuttle program's impending conclusion and the psychological consequences of the financial crisis, the future of manned space flight is increasingly uncertain. Mix in the fact that the Obama administration is looking to check books across the federal budget while NASA's leadership is working overtime to ensure hefty cuts and it is hard to have any faith in what was once the premiere example of the American can-do attitude and the power of collective action.

The symbolic weight of NASA has been waning for generations; what was once an agency that inspired pride and held the fascination of an entire nation is today the stand-in for wasteful government spending. Libertarians and progressives alike are quick to pounce on NASA as a emonstration of federal largesse, but when you break down the budget numbers, it seems that NASA garners an undue amount of attention:

Perhaps instead of representing the dream of exploration, NASA has come into its own as the federal agency that is the easiest to understand. Try to level a critique at the treasury department and you soon find that even they aren't sure about the limits of their power or where all the TARP money goes. Point to NASA and you see a gigantic, money-burning rocket.

Despite the grandeur of space, even the most exuberant Trekkie can see how flat the dream of exploring space can seem in the modern day:
The plan, based on President Bush's 2004 "Vision for Space Exploration" and authorized by Congress, has been vigorously promoted by Griffin. The key elements include the completion of the international space station, the retirement of the shuttle, and the construction of a spaceflight system featuring two new rockets and a new crew vehicle that would be capable of journeys to the space station, the moon and beyond. -WaPo
The "Vision" read more like defeat with vague promises of future exploration as the only silver lining. Hot on the heels of the Iraq war, few saw Bush's proposal as anything more than a rhetorical swing for the fences. Commonly enough, Obama eloquently defined the underlying sentiment throughout the United States:
“NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration,” he said. “I don’t think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn’t even pass for news anymore.”
All this from a man who ran his campaign on the words "Hope, "Change," and "Yes We Can." As the new president, his solution seems to be delaying the Constellation program (an uninspiring shuttle replacement aimed at taking us into earth orbit on the cheap) -undoubtedly a savvy financial move in the short-run, but where is the inspiration candidate on turning the program around?

All this bad news has neatly coincided with the final demise of the plucky but still inspiring Phoenix Lander (40k+ twitter followers), a firm demonstration of NASA's ability to run a successful research mission and PR campaign at the same time.

If there truly is a new mission to focus on public works, create hi-tech jobs and reinstill trust in the power of the federal government, what could be an easier demonstration than building up NASA? People love space, people love competition and nothing could be more exciting than crushing Chinese plans to go to the moon with an infinitely more ostenatious launch to Mars. Few things scream power like a bigger rocket.

At least consider doing it as a Mad Men tie-in!:

Listen to those drums beating for progress!:

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