Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reaching for the Stars Is Not Just a Metaphor

Part of NASA's stated mission is "to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can." There is only one way NASA can inspire kids to pursue science and engineering, and that is by sending astronauts to personally explore destinations in space. Kids are not inspired by press releases, mission statements, classroom presentations, computer animations, or even robotic missions. They are inspired by heroes—real humans whom they can idolize and follow. They see real people walking on the Moon, and they realize that it's possible. Kids can strive to become spacewalkers; they can't strive to become robotic probes.

If we want NASA to be inspiring, we cannot take shortcuts on human spaceflight. We cannot have it both ways—it's one or the other. I don't understand where the inspirational component will come from in the new NASA direction. While the Constellation program may have been lacking in innovation, it was at least a plan with concrete goals. At least it involved sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. And at least it was something to build off of. The new plan seems little more than a set of vague references to future missions. When are they going to happen? What milestones will serve to coordinate NASA's efforts? Just because Charles Bolden uses adjectives like "bold" and "ambitious" doesn't mean NASA's activities are either.

There are some of us out here who want to see humans physically orbiting other stars. Not in our lifetime, but we want to be a part of that effort. Exploration is an end in itself. We want to get started on this journey and see evidence of our progress. In our lifetimes, we want to see humans fly through the Solar System and colonize other worlds. We want to see them establish interplanetary commerce and create new ways of life. Sooner or later kids realize whether the achievements of adults match their rhetoric. So reaching for the stars is not just a metaphor.


  1. I know I railed against NASA and space in general for a long time. To some extent, I feel the same way. But I also watched a silly movie in the planetarium at the Smithsonian about space, and it really did change my perspective. The vastness of space was something I could barely comprehend - in fact, I'm still not sure I do, but the movie did make me appreciate it more. A lot more. I can see the value and intrigue in space exploration now, which I never could before. That said, I still think it is possible to engage and interest children in STEM careers without the draw of manned space missions. Perhaps not for 5 year olds, but for older children. I think, overall, I'd still rather see taxpayer dollars go to something I value more highly than space exploration, but that's true of a lot of taxpayer funded projects. But I have come around a lot in terms of my feelings of space exploration being completely pointless and frivolous.

  2. Kevin, it's completely reasonable to question the use of tax revenue on human spaceflight. The problem is that it requires so much capital and resources that few entities other than governments are large enough to do it. The only other option is private spaceflight, but the way taxes and anti-trust laws are structured make it infeasible for corporations to become large enough. So the way I feel is that until income and corporate taxes are reduced, government should pick up the slack.

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