Monday, February 03, 2003

Gregg Easterbrook writes in Time that we should cancel the shuttle program. I really want to disagree with him and, in fact, do. Sort of. Mostly. Mainly I don't trust him, or, rather, I don't trust the piece he's written, because anything written so soon after a public tragedy like this will be motivated almost exclusively by grief. But his core argument is much less inflamatory that the headline ("The Space Shuttle Must Be Stopped"). Basically, he's arguing that much of the technology behind the shuttle launches is 20 years old, and we need to start from scratch.

I've never really been a space geek. I've been a food geek, a computer geek, and a martial arts geek, but never a space geek. Sure, I read a lot of science fiction, but I was always much more interested in the people (and non-human people) in the books than the machines. For me, the science in science fiction was anthropology. But I had friends who were, and they always kept me updated on what was happening, on the slowly approaching day when people lived on the moon, mined the asteroids, and took those first, hesitant steps outside the solar system.

I read my history books, so I knew that the first pilots crashed a lot, that the prairies were seeded with the bones of the pioneers. Knowing that, I also knew that the people in the space program now had placed themselves on the bleeding edge for the sake of the species. And make no mistake, as long as we're limited to just the one planet, we're unbelievably fragile (on a cosmic scale, anyway). They put their lives at risk so that maybe a thousand years from now some kid can lay his back in the grass on some other world, looking up at the backside of the same stars I see from my front porch.

And then there are the engineers, who push the limits of reason and imagination to hurl a select few at the void and bring them safely home. What's harder, to risk your own life, or to make decisions and calculate risks for the lives of others?

The space program isn't about money, or ego, or politics, though all of those things end up affecting its course. The space program is, in the short term, about basic research (which, by the way, has wonderful return on investment), and in the long term its about the future of our species.

Aw, hell. The principals of oratory demand a call for action, that I advocate a position, something. But what action? What position? But the decisions about the future of the space program are in the hands of our government, which is currently run by, well, not the most forward thinking individuals.

If I wrote a letter to my congressman today, it wouldn't say "Vote yes on Bill H423" or "Increase funding for basic research", it would ask that he please take more of a long-term view, that he think about what each bill meant not just for himself and his campaign contributors, but for his grandchildren, and for as many generations forward as he could imagine. I'd ask that he please find it in himself to be hopeful for he future, in spite of the rhetoric coming from our leaders, who so desperately fear change, because you cannot plan for a happy future if you cannot see it.

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