Thursday, January 08, 2009

Space, the Forgotten Frontier

I've always been a huge fan of the space program, so the existence thereof has never been something I thought needed justification. However, I find that in my daily life, many of the people I run into hold the opinion that the space program is a huge waste of money with absolutely no benefits whatsoever. I've mostly written this off as ignorance, but still been bothered by it. However, a recent trip to Florida made me consider how poor a job of marketing itself NASA has done.

On this trip, we spent several days at Walt Disney World, then stopped by NASA's Kennedy Space Center, before visiting the Atlantic Ocean (as we had several people, our kids included, who had never seen it before) and then heading back home. The difference between Disney World and NASA was one of the most dramatic I have ever seen. Granted, I was giving Disney World pretty high marks. I had only been the once before, as a young child, so my only memories of it were faint, and glossy with childhood nostalgia. In addition to that, I had recently read Cory Doctorow's book "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom", so I was reliving the book as I walked through the park. So, I spent the entire time at the park annoying my wife with comments about how efficient I found things, how well designed and themed areas were, how well things tied together, how this area was important in the book, etc.

We then visited NASA, where it felt like we had found a run-down back-country tourist-trap/ghost-town. The place was almost deserted, and looked like it was running on a skeleton crew as well. There was one ticket lane open, but the way they were set up, you had to walk up to each one to see if it was open or not. You were largely left to yourself to explore the exhibits, and read the plaques, with little or no direction from the staff. It was overall a horrible experience, and one the kiddos did not enjoy at all. While I can't blame them for that, it did hurt me, their geek dad/space buff, that they weren't as fascinated by the shuttles and space hardware as they were by the princesses and talking animals a few days before.

Even for me, the experience was rather disappointing. I wasn't engaged at all, I didn't learn anything I didn't already know. Yes, there was a shuttle on the launch pad, but you couldn't really see anything more than the top 6 inches of the External Tank from the observation tower. Granted, I had fussy kids to keep me busy, so I didn't get to see some of the exhibits I wanted to. Additionally, this visit was near the end of our trip, and everyone was gearing up for the couple days in the car it would take to get home. Still, it was the sheer underwhelmingness of the experience that impressed upon me the most.

We are talking about the space program here. Space Shuttles with Solid Rocket Boosters and External Tanks, some of the most advanced technology in this country, in the world even. Yet, I couldn't really get into it. If only NASA had the Walt Disney Imagineering department working for them, how might the Space Center be different? How might the public's impression of the Space Program as a whole, be different? Space travel has become routine, so it only makes the news when something goes horribly wrong. At any given point in time, how many people around you could tell you how many people are currently in space?

NASA has done very little that I have seen to work on its public image. So, consequently, very few people know what the agency's mission is, or what its goals are. Even fewer people seem to understand the impact NASA has on life here on earth. The common opinion is that money spent by NASA is either a) turned into smoke when a rocket launches or b) launched into space, and has no impact here on earth, that it is being completely wasted. So, let me throw some numbers your way, ok?

NASA's requested budget for 2007 was $17 Billion. (source) In isolation, that is a large number. Certainly more than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes. However, when we start to add in some context, how does it look? The recent bailout package was approved for up to $700 Billion. The auto industry is asking for $25 Billion in bailout loans. The US national budget for 2007 was $2.784 Trillion, so NASA's slice of the pie was 0.58% of the national budget. Finally, social programs (the place most people say the money going to NASA should be spent instead, totaled $1.581 Trillion. So, for every $1 spent on NASA, we are already spending $98 on social programs. Finally, for every dollar spent by the government on R&D in NASA, it is estimated the government earns $7 in personal and corporate income taxes. (source) Let me repeat that, the government brings in $7 for every $1 it sends out to research projects inside of NASA.

The last piece of the puzzle, is what we call spinoff technologies. Things that had their beginning in the space program, but ended up in the public, usually in very different forms. These are the things I think NASA could really do a better job of publicizing, although they have put together a very neat site to showcase some of them. Many of them are exotic sounding things you'll probably never encounter, such as advanced welding systems and magnetic liquids. However, there are a few that are very important to many people.

  • Infrared In-ear thermometers, a parent's best friend.
  • Cordless vacuums, like the DustBuster.
  • LED lights.

Of course, there is also the obvious, telecommunication satellites. The things that make so many of your phone calls, internet usage, and tv watching possible. Not to mention the many advances in weather monitoring and forecasting, useful both to those in the path of a hurricane, and those with a farm in the midst of a drought. These are things that the space program brought to life, usually inadvertently. It can also be argued that the current age of advanced technology is largely thanks to the space race era, and the many engineers and scientist who worked on the projects, and many others who may never have been involved with the space program directly, but were inspired to go into science and technology because of it. Because ultimately, to me, that is what the space program is all about. It is about solving problems, about exploring, and about learning new things and adding to the sum total of human knowledge, and inspiring new generations to do the same things.

I am a Christian, so I'm not one who believes our only hope for survival is in colonizing other planets, and eventually other solar systems. However, I do believe that the future of the US of A, as a country, relies on our being leaders in technology and science, areas we are quickly falling behind in. We once were the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, but now that is all being shipped abroad. We now import much of our food, more than we really have to. If we stop leading in innovation, what will we excel in, as a country?