I rarely post anything on space because I really don't know much more than the average reader of this weblog; no value-add from me. But yesterday I ran across an article which reported the financial overruns in the Mars Science Laboratory project. Today NASA said that the project will launch on schedule. It seems that to make this work they'll have to ax some other missions, though they're putting a happy-face on their claims today (as if the money will magically appear in these strained financial times!).
I'm very happy that the is all-go. Space exploration and science is something I really care about. I remember how angry I was when I saw a speech in Congress by representative Joe Kennedy II where he argued for the cutting of the NASA budget by suggesting that people were going hungry so that we could launch vehicles into earth orbit. I thought that was a low blow; after all, why doesn't Joe Kennedy and his clan divest themselves of their wealth and funnel it to organizations which aid the needy? Why don't obese & consumerist Americans start diverting their economic wealth to those in need, especially to places where malnutrition and hunger are endemic? I've lived in very "progressive" & "conscious" locales where there's plenty of affluence and useless "bling." It's more complicated than a simple trade-off between basic blue sky science and human necessities. Why do we continue to fund space science is something that can't be resolved through material utilitarian calculus; rather, it is an issue of values, dare I say, a matter of transcendence?* Those who support unmanned space exploration often gripe about the costs of the manned projects and their lack of basic science yield. But of course, that too is an issue of values.
At the end of the day reasonable people can disagree. I accept that many humans do not share my fascination with space science, and appreciation of its fruits. In fact, it may be that my relative security in terms of basic necessities allow my head to be "in the clouds." But, I would offer that all humans are "in the clouds" in some way. Even the poor in many developing nations give some of their meager income to religions and bow to social custom which demand that they take on debt so as to finance outrageous displays such as weddings for their children. I could ask why Joe Kennedy allowed children to starve so that he could afford ski trips to Aspen? And yet I am sure he could make a case for the joy and the intrinsic value of racing down a ski slope at incredible velocities. I don't begrudge him that.
* I am not persuaded that the engineering byproducts of space exploration warrant the enormous cost. Zero gravity might be the ideal laboratory for some experiments, but the cost to attain zero gravity could probably be better allocated so as to the make the research in regular gravity more productivity.