If you’ve ever wondered why it has been half a century since the world has been truly captivated by a space mission, one particular fight on The Hill (DC slang for Congress) may shed some light. Like all taxpayer-funded initiatives, NASA’s budget is perennially contentious. But the political argy-bargy of late has not been so much about how much federal dough the agency is allocated, but what it spends the money on.
According to the Republicans, the Obama administration has been funnelling a lot of NASA’s resources into studies of Planet Earth – issues such as climate change for example – rather than space exploration.
“Are we focusing on the heavens in NASA or are we focusing on dirt in Texas?” asked colourful Coloradan senator Cory Gardner in a speech to the House recently.
If this is really the case, then the Republicans are right to throw barbs. Don’t get me wrong, studies of Earth are hugely worthwhile. In fact, Attenborough’s Life series is perhaps as valuable a gift to the world from the British people as NASA is from the Yanks.
But Kennedy and Johnson would be turning in their respective graves to see that not once since the Moon Landing have humans (and Americans more pertinently) touched down on a new world in our solar system.
Having said that, NASA would be within its rights to tell the pollies to f off, as it completes the closest and most successful Pluto flyby.
Pluto. Source: nasa.gov
Perhaps more significantly, the agency is also gearing up to launch the much-anticipated Orion mission. Following a successful test run in December 2014, this summer, NASA will launch a two-year mission that will hopefully see astronauts walk on Mars for the first time.
Walking around the sprawling Johnson Space Center – the ‘Houston’ in ‘Houston, we have a problem’ – there is a sense of activity and optimism ahead of this monumental mission.
A video narrated by Patrick Stewart tells visitors matter-of-factly about ‘when’, not if, astronauts touch down on the red planet, indicating NASA is glass-half-full despite squabbling on The Hill.
A few days after visiting the centre, I took a trolley tour around downtown Dallas, visiting the sites of JFK’s assassination and the cops’ subsequent pursuit of Lee Harvey Oswald. The 150-kilo tour guide didn’t want to be drawn on any JFK conspiracy theories. “I’ll stick to the FACTS thank you sir,” he sprays in a deep Texan drawl, rebuffing the questions raised by my high school history teacher.
But he was happy to talk about just how much the Moon landing meant to Kennedy and to all Americans at that time, giving them a sense of national (and human) pride.
Space exploration is important because it helps us contextualise our place in the universe, the almost incomprehensible luckiness of existence, like no other human pursuit. For my part, I’ll be following Orion closely and cheering it on.
But NASA better get a move on, or it’ll have a band of angry politicians (not to mention the Chinese) nipping at its heels.
Published on 23 July 2015