by Stuart Atkinson
|What worries me more is the nagging feeling I have that when it comes to the vision, perhaps Bush’s opponents have a point.|
Now, just when we thought we were going to turn the slowboat around, when we thought there was a chance that maybe, just maybe, someone would go up there and find Harrison Schmitt’s famously-thrown geological hammer, they do it again. This time, who knows how deep their cuts will be. This could be just the start. Bush’s initiative is a great fat dollar-filled pie, so big that everyone will figure that cutting off a small slice here and a small slice there won’t really make much difference. Well, one day they’ll turn around and there’ll be no pie left, just crumbs, then there’ll be no turning back.
But what worries me more than the predictable pushback by Bush’s opponents is the nagging feeling I have that when it comes to the vision, perhaps they have a point.
Like everyone here I watched George Bush and Sean O’Keefe launching the new program, saw Mike Foale grinning away behind them, and I allowed myself to think maybe, just maybe, after so many false starts, this time would be different. But even then I was uneasy. It all seemed too good to be true, an epic, like the script of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie—an amazing adventure, full of heroes and heroines, with money no object. Unfortunately, out here in the real world we all know that money is an object.
Now don’t get me wrong. No one wants to see human bootprints pressed into the Martian dust more than I do. I mention it in the kids books I write. I talk about it in the lectures I give in schools and to adult community groups. I dream about it when I’m showing people the planet itself through my telescope, during my astronomical society’s star parties. However, I’ll admit, I’ve been uneasy about Bush’s plan from the start because, as noble and visionary as it is—and it undoubtedly is—it has seemed to me to be fatally flawed, unrealistic, and ultimately doomed. Fatally flawed because it is simply too expensive a plan to be proposing and promoting at this time of worldwide unrest and potential peril, when people’s minds are understandably focused on more terrestrial concerns. Unrealistic, because its success requires literally generations of genuine political agreement and cooperation the likes of which haven’t been seen outside of wartime. Unrealistic also because, as keen and sincere as Bush is, everyone knows that he won’t be the one in power at the most testing and dangerous stages of the project, meaning he won’t have to face any public backlash if—when—lives are lost. Unrealistic too because Bush won’t be the one paying the huge bills when the invoices start dropping thru the White House’s letterbox: talk is cheap, politicians’ talk dirt cheap, but space exploration isn’t.
And doomed? Perhaps, because the brutal truth is that there’s neither the public support nor the scientific justification for it right now. Thirty-five years after Armstrong walked on the Moon, there’s no buzz—if you’ll pardon the pun—about going to Mars. Without that, Bush, and NASA, have nothing.
NASA is its own worst enemy here. O’Keefe is a brilliant and sincere man, I am sure, dedicated and committed to the future, but so casually and publicly signing the death warrant of the Hubble Space Telescope, dismissing it with a wave of the hand, was a breathtaking act of folly and foolishness. We’re all used to NASA’s media and PR gaffes, but I was stunned that they would just think they could sacrifice Hubble without someone at the back raising a hand and saying “Er, excuse me, but you’ve been telling us for a generation now how wonderful an instrument it is, boasting to us at every opportunity how it’s revolutionised astronomy and how it’s a supreme triumph of engineering and NASA know-how. You can’t just turn it off!”
|So casually and publicly signing the death warrant of the Hubble Space Telescope, dismissing it with a wave of the hand, was a breathtaking act of folly and foolishness.|
Unbelievable, just unbelievable. That was treating the public with something close to contempt. It seems a re-think is going on in the aftermath of the public outrage. Let’s hope so. When astronomers have said they want to keep using it, astronauts have said they want to fly up to repair it and the public have said they’ll keep paying for it, abandoning Hubble—at least before its successor is ready—would be quite unbelievably wrong.
I can’t help wondering if, at a time when NASA is declaring proudly what good value for money unmanned spacecraft are, shouting from the hilltops, justifiably, about the success of Cassini and the MERs, the idea of the public and politicians obediently handing over billions of dollars to send people to Mars at some vague point in the future, after scrapping existing spacecraft, abandoning the ISS, and cutting back on other high profile programs, is a bigger fairytale than anything Shrek’s producers could come up with.
To talk so casually about abandoning the ISS baffles me. Ever since Zarya was launched—and I remember standing in my garden and watching it flying over my house at dusk soon after, a bright star slicing through the purple twilight—NASA has heralded the ISS as Mankind’s “gateway to the stars”, our beachhead on the shore of the Universe. From the ISS, one day in the future Mankind would expand outwards, but not before we had learned how to make new medicines and materials, studied the Earth and its climate, developed startling new medical technologies and a million other wonders. Abandon it? It must be some use, surely? An astronaut training facility, at the very least. An orbiting, quarantined lab to use when the first Mars samples are returned? There must be something we can do with it after spending all that money on it? Or are we so stupid now that we not only look gift horses in the mouth, but we kick them and break all their teeth too?
If the cost of the Vision for Space Exploration’s success is the loss of Hubble, ISS, and other scientifically useful missions, then maybe we need to look at the figures again. It may just not be worth it. I sound pessimistic, I know, maybe even anti-Bush or anti-NASA. I support the aims of the new Vision, I really do. I want it to succeed. I just can’t shake this feeling that we’re going about this the wrong way. I’m not sure what the right way is, I’m no expert, nor do I claim to be one.