It Came from the Whitehouse

A while back there was a bit of a kerfuffle when NASA cancelled a number of its most exciting robotic missions to spend the money on manned missions. There was quite a lot of confusion, as some of the missions were apparently reinstated due to the outcry (one mission was cancelled without consulting the European partners who had already spent millions on it) and I guess I kind of assumed that they would never have really cancelled the mission to Europa, because that was just too exciting. Well, I found out a few days ago that I was wrong. No mission to Europa.

Louis D. Friedman, co-founder of the Planetary Society and executive director of that organisation, a scientist who worked on Mariner, Voyager, Magellan and "JPL's Mars program" (that last one pretty damn expansive), is guest-blogging over at the Planetary Society this week, and he has a thought-provoking post about what he believes is the thinking behind these attacks on space science. And you know, it is something to wonder about. No religious fundamentalist voters or oil industry backers to please here, so what's the deal?

Well, put down your drink lest you do a spit-take on reading this (emphasis mine):

In a little publicized speech last March, the President's science advisor, Dr. John Marburger, declared, "…we want to incorporate the Solar System in our [the U.S.] economic sphere…" and then went on say "The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.…It subordinates space exploration to the primary goals of scientific, security and economic interests." Whoa -- what happened to exploration? What are the American economic and security interests in human exploration of the Moon and Mars? What happened to "we came in peace for all mankind?"

There are quite a few active missions listed in my sidebar - unmanned explorers like those that got canned. 'We' are already on Mars, in the form of Spirit, Opportunity and half a dozen orbiters. With the exception of Voyager and Galileo, all the explorers in my sidebar were put into space over the past decade or so. Now the images and data that they produce is being put onto the internet, where anyone can read it, even liberal European atheists like yours truly. When I say 'we', I mean all of humankind. These are by-and-large American missions. Many have sizable European contributions, such as Cassini, others are all ESA, such as Mars/Venus Express, but without NASA I don't believe we would have this glut of robotic explorers. This is everything that is good about America - a nation leading the world in this field and taking the rest of us with it.

You know that episode of the Simpsons where Lisa is disillusioned with democracy and there's a whole government agency dedicated to restoring her faith in the system? Well, I think the Bush administration has something like that, but it works a little differently. "Quick!" they scream. "A liberal European isn't annoyed with something we're doing! BREAK IT BEFORE WE BECOME UNCLEAN!"

Right now, NASA is doing amazing things with robots in space. And Bush/Marburger wants his legacy to be to dismiss that success - that international success - in favour of conquering space in the name of America. Make that trying to conquer space. Louis quotes Marburger - Bush's science advisor remember - as saying "We go to the Moon and do these other things, for its oxygen." What the fuck is he smoking? As with so many things with the Bush administration, it's seemingly not just about being militant - it's about being militant as poorly planned as possible.


La Fuerza Artemis said...

Very interesting...
(not an understatement by any means.) :)

Disillusioned kid said...

Space is big money nowdays. How many billions of dollars are predicated upon the satellite network. As somebody pointed out once, military power typically follows comercial significance. We have to protect our interests, terrestrial and extra-terrestrial.

Then there's the militarisation of space. To some extent that's linked with the first point. What better way to weaken your opponent than to cripple their ability to communicate and/or work out where they are? Of course, once you've got weapons up there, the sky's the limit. (Apparently interest in this isn't limited to the US, with China - and presumably others- conducting research as well.)

In my humble opinion the "Son of Star Wars" project portends a much wider programme. Knocking missiles out of the sky is tricky - to put it lightly. Hitting an Iranian building from space, probably less so.

The Bushies don't give a frig about abstract exploration, but I bet they're concerned about some of the things I've outlined above.

Pacian said...

But as Friedman put it, what commercial or military significance does the moon have? Or Mars? Ultimately there is no interest there beyond abstract exploration and an old fashioned sense of imperialism. Pretending otherwise, as Marburger is doing, is either dishonest or stupid.

I honestly can't figure out which.