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Why the moon?

I understand the politics of the fight against NASA cutbacks. Jobs are at stake, even if they are being funded by those evil, dirty, not-job-creating federal dollars. But I’m still puzzled by the whole thing.

Texans have so little clout in Washington nowadays that when U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, now Sugar Land’s Republican Congressman, wanted to meet privately with NASA chief Charles Bolden, he had to buttonhole the former astronaut after a House panel hearing.

And although thousands of Houston-area jobs are at stake, Texans in 2008 did nothing to help usher Barack Obama into the White House. Furthermore, history shows previous lobbying efforts to salvage massive NASA projects have never succeeded.

“There’s not a single case where a major cancellation in the space program has been overturned by external lobbying,” says space historian John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Congress defers to presidents on space because you can’t run a space program from Capitol Hill.”

Still, Texans vow to press ahead to overcome the decision to end the Bush-era $108 billion project initially envisioned to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Let’s put the politics aside for a minute. Why exactly do we want to go back to the moon? What is it we hope to learn from going there that we didn’t learn from all of the Apollo missions? What larger goal are we moving towards that these missions would help us achieve? From the time the Constellation program was first announced, the reason for it has been unclear to me. When I read about the political fight going on now, I see lots of talk about jobs, but basically nothing about the scientific value of more manned flights to the moon. So I want to know, what is the Constellation program for?

The other thing that strikes me about this is that in typical fashion, President Bush’s announcement of Constellation brought with it a large financial commitment for his eventual successor for which he himself provided no means to pay. Given the concerns that some people, like Pete Olson and John Cornyn and Rick Perry, say they have about the deficit and how much money the federal government is spending, what’s the justification for the $100 billion this will cost? Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s different when it affects you. I get that, but I don’t get why anyone thinks this is something on which President Obama is likely to be flexible. It’s not like Olson has shown any willingness to support anything Obama does. I mean, if Obama called up Pete Olson today and said “I’ll give you everything you want on NASA if you vote for the health care bill”, would anyone expect Olson to take the deal? I think we know what the answer to that would be. So why does Olson expect to get something with nothing? More to the point, why does anyone who voted for Olson think he’d be able to?

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3 Comments

  1. Appetitus Rationi Pareat says:

    I am all for exploration and expanding our understanding of the universe. I think this helps lead to many new and wonderful scientific and technological discoveries. And frankly, I think it is just really, really fascinating.

    That all being said, it is about time we as a country had a real, mature discussion on what our priorities are and what fiscal/tax policy we should craft to meet those priorities. Back in the 1960′s (when we were originally going for the moon), the top marginal tax rate was between 90% and 70%. The top marginal tax rate right now is about 35%. See this link for some perspective.

    So many people in this country (from both parties) talk about how they want to fund this and want to fund that. And yet, like spoiled little children, they never talk about actually paying for these things. If this country wants to go for the moon again, or build a decent transportation infrastructure or have a decent social welfare safety net…WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO PAY FOR IT. That means higher taxes…period….ultimately for everyone.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t pay for these programs. I personally think taxes should be higher in this country to pay for some things. Scandinavian countries have higher taxes than we do (comparable to the levels in the 1960′s US) and they have a very high quality of life. I also think that we are spending a lot of money on programs that are boondoggles (a lot of military spending is a joke and based on Cold War threats). But I am not naive enough to think that, ultimately, “we can have our cake and eat it too.” Both parties need to start being honest about this and the vast majority of this country need to stop acting like a bunch of spoiled children and GROW UP!

  2. Martha Griffin says:

    Well said, Charles. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. Reminds me of Gil Scott Heron:

    “A rat done bit my sister Nell, and Whitey’s on the moon. Her face and arms began to swell, and Whitey’s on the moon. I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon. Ten years from now I’ll be paying still, while Whitey’s on the moon …”

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