Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Oh, NASA, Say it Ain't So

 Space Exploration: So 1969.
We just lost Mars.

When the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration says that perhaps foremost his agency’s mission is “to engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering, you know the mission to Mars – vague as it is – has gone out the window.

But that’s apparently what NASA chief Charles Bolden said this weekend as he spoke at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

So let’s not bother to reach out to nations who want to go into space, who are contributing or could contribute to space programs or astronomical research. In that I agree with Bolden, as he said: “We’re not going to go anywhere beyond low Earth orbit as a single entity.” But do we just focus on making people feel good about what’s already been done?

I don’t argue that, as Ahmed Zewail, an Obama-appointed science envoy to the Middle East said, using “the soft power of science in the service of diplomacy,” is a bad thing. We ought to be cultivating and encouraging science and collaboration and science education as much as we can. But a big part of me says that NASA’s foremost mission ought to be sending guys with nicknames like “Deke” and “Buzz” into, you know, outer space. What’s worse – having NASA become an arm of the military, or a soft, non-space-faring appendage of the State Department?

Maybe the admiration that’s seen in the Muslim world for American accomplishments in space and science come from the fact that someone actually said, “Hey, we ought to send people to the Moon and return them safely before the decade is out,” and actually did it, rather than dithering about how to make people feel good or to say we can’t do it alone, we need help. Maybe they admire the leadership, the attitude, the forging on and getting it done, as well as what was accomplished in the first place? We don’t need a multicultural approach to long division – we need to find people wherever they are to work with to get back into space because, truly, everyone involved believes in the mission, has clear goals in sight, and wants to get the work done because they believe in the work, not because it’s being approached in a multicultural way that makes everybody feel good. We didn’t exactly do it alone the first time, the second time, or whatever. We just found people of any background who had the smarts and the guts to do what was necessary to get things done. Can the United States still have that attractant power if there are no clear goals, no leadership and a commitment to well-meant but fuzzy futures, and not to, say, landing on the Moon again, building a base there, or going on to Mars? I don’t think so.

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