The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way—the way God intended it to be—by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space.
– Roger B Chaffee
My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.
– Edgar Mitchell
On the morning of Friday 21, of September there was a exciting buzz in the otherwise matter of fact usual fare in the local news, the Space Shuttle Endeavor would make it’s final trip around different points of California from Edwards air force base in California to LAX in route to it’s final destination at the Museum of Science in Exposition Park in Downtown Los Angeles.
Cynical me, I was not taken by the supposed grandiosity of the Event, of “being witnessing History”, and all that fanfare, self serving promotion to a failed, and very expensive program, paid by us, the taxpayer, and the lost of life of fourteen people, astronauts, and civilians.
As the morning progressed the enthusiasm of the newscaster and people aligned in San Francisco, Sacramento Santa Monica, Griffith Park, LAX, Pasadena, etc. Grew in excitement and all kind of emotional nonsense, of “once in a lifetime experience”, people cried, and said: “I will be able to tell my children I was there that day, I saw the Endeavour flight over my roof!” Cynical me thought: “Maybe I will be able to tell my grandchildren how Grandpa saw how our Government allied to private capital, invested our tax money to enrich the few, meanwhile the homeless were cheering in awe at looking the shuttle flying through their full time home, the streets and the sidewalks!”
As it happens I got a little share of my taxpayer money in the form of entertainment, and mild awe, as the shuttle on piggyback ride on top of a giant Jumbo Jet with great noise and escorted by two jet fighters flew in front of my window who face the Griffith observatory, so low you could see clearly many details if your eye was fast enough to catch it. It was a big production, not unlike a Hollywood movie. Of course our local politicians were there at the airport to cash on the event, and present the shuttle like “our achievement” making us part of it, and therefore proud for it, like if we had any say in the matter, and to reassure us what a great honor was for our city to be the retirement home of the old shuttle, however not an undeserved honor, since we in California and in Los Angeles, contributed a great deal to the space program, and the shuttle in particular, of course nothing was said how much the honor cost us up to the present, or in the future.
Here is an article in The Guardian UK Thursday 21 July 2011, you may find enlightening:
“With Atlantis’s touchdown on Thursday bringing down the final curtain on the space shuttle program, there is much hand-wringing over the end of an era. For the first time in 30 years Nasa has no immediate program for human space travel in place. While many are mourning this loss, the last flight of the space shuttle instead provides an opportunity to rethink space exploration and a time to cut our losses from a failed program that has been a colossal waste of resources, time and creative energy.
The space shuttle failed to live up to its primary goal of providing relatively cheap and efficient human space travel. There is a good reason for this. As the engineers made it clear to the physicist Richard Feynman when he was investigating the cause of the Challenger explosion, human space travel is risky. While Nasa managers had estimated the odds of a shuttle disaster to be microscopic, engineers estimated the loss rate at about 1 in 100 flights, which is close to the actual disaster rate.
Not only has the shuttle program been costly, it has been boring. A generation that grew up with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had hoped that by the dawn of the new millennium we would be regularly vacationing in space, and routinely sending astronauts to boldly go where no man or woman had gone before.
Instead we were treated to regular images of the shuttle visiting a $100 billion boondoggle orbiting in space closer to Earth than Washington DC is to New York. No one except a billionaire or two has ever vacationed in space, and their “hotel” was a cramped, stuffy and at times smelly white elephant.
Either aboard the shuttle or the International Space Station, astronauts have explicitly demonstrated that what we learn from sending people into space is not much more than how people can survive in space. The lion’s share of costs associated with sending humans into space is devoted, as it should be, to making sure they survive the voyage. No other significant science has been learned by a generation’s worth of round trips in near-earth orbit.
Yes, there have been highlights, such as the Hubble Space Telescope launch and repair missions, which were not only exciting but useful. However, the real question is whether they were necessary to achieve the science goals. The initial HST repair mission was required because of poor engineering on the ground, which may even have resulted from the daunting requirement of creating a device that had to be designed to be deployed from the space shuttle.
And given the $5 billion or so price tag per year associated with the shuttle (leading to cost estimates ranging between $500 millions and $1.3 billions per launch) compared with the total cost of, say $5-7 billions over more than a decade for the James Webb Space Telescope, one wonders – as my colleague Robert Parks has mused – whether it would have cost less and been more efficient to merely send up another Hubble (on an unmanned rocket) instead of sending an expensive crew ship to repair the old one.
Helping construct the International Space Station has been no serious justification for the shuttle program. A largely useless international make-work project that was criticized by every major science organization in the US, all that can be said for its scientific justification is that it now houses a $2 billions particle physics experiment (the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) that managed to avoid serious scientific peer review during its development, otherwise it certainly would not have been recommended for funding.
The real science done by Nasa has not involved humans. We have sent robots to places humans could never have survived and peered into the far depths of the cosmos, back to the early moments of the big bang, with instruments far more capable than our human senses, all for a fraction of what it costs to send a living, breathing person into Earth’s orbit. The first rovers went to Mars for what it would cost to make a movie about sending Bruce Willis to Mars.
But science is not the real goal of human space travel. As I argued over a decade ago to the House Science Committee when Buzz Aldrin and I were asked to testify before their subcommittee on space exploration, we send humans into space for adventure. Astronauts inspire us by their courage and skill, and not least by the fact that they risk death every time they step into a spacecraft.
I personally have no problems with this fact. I believe the future of the human species will eventually be in space, and that we will one day colonize other planets. But we have to be honest about this goal.
I have been on stage with astronauts and watched how they inspire kids to dream big dreams. Indeed, I myself stayed home from school during every Apollo moon mission, and dreamed of one day walking on the moon myself.
Did those missions encourage me to become a scientist, or was I interested in them because of a pre-existing fascination with the cosmos? It is hard to say. But the inspiration associated with tackling problems as immense as those associated with sending humans away from their natural environment into the hostile reaches of space has ultimately produced a host of scientists and engineers who might otherwise have pursued other careers.
If we are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on human space travel, however, we need to have a rational plan, and one that can excite the imagination of the next generation of would-be scientists and explorers. The space shuttle did not provide such a plan.
As Richard Feynman himself said in his final report on the Challenger disaster: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Lawrence M Krauss is foundation professor and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and the author of books including The Physics of Star Trek. His most recent book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, was published in March
Unlike Mr. Krauss I do not share his enthusiasm for space exploration, neither I believe the future is in space colonization, when as Mr. Krauss admit, we do not posses even a rational plan for it. I believe our future is here, on Earth, our home, here now, not in a distant pay in the sky dream, we need solutions for our planet, Earth it is not a celestial body made to exploit, and rip off, discarding at our convenience, so we can go and exploit other planets and discard them on the recycle bin once we have enjoyed the usefulness of it like a soda can. Earth is our Mother, and our Home, and will be for our foreseeable future, so let start caring about it, and invest our money on conservation, and environmental ecology, and stop putting escapist dreams in the tender minds of our children, romanticizing space travel, better let’s cultivate in them a love for our Earth, so they can continue to live in it with wisdom and happiness for all, and not only for an elite of corporate oriented profiteers who using science, and technology as tools, at the expense of our taxpayer money, dream to despoil other planets, like they are doing to Earth, so they can accumulate more wealth at our expense, and that of of our Mother Earth, with little benefit for the common man, who unwillingly pays the bill, and receive in exchange a cheap thrill, like watching the shuttle on piggyback parade all over California, at the cost of hundred of billions of dollars, and to add insult to injury the death of 400 trees, in Inglewood and South Los Angeles, to make way for the shuttle in to the museum, ironically trough one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles… A cynical friend of mine paraphrasing Neil Armstrong said: “A small chump change of money for our government, a giant long 274 years, at 10,000 dollars a day for a man to spend just a single billion!”