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    Nov. 14, 2008

Currently, NASA’s Mars science exploration budget is being decimated, we are not going back to the Moon, and plans for astronauts to visit Mars are delayed until the 2030s—on funding not yet allocated, overseen by a congress and president to be named later.

During the late 1950s through the early 1970s, every few weeks an article, cover story, or headline would extol the “city of tomorrow,” the “home of tomorrow,” the “transportation of tomorrow.” Despite such optimism, that period was one of the gloomiest in U.S. history, with a level of unrest not seen since the Civil War. The Cold War threatened total annihilation, a hot war killed a hundred servicemen each week, the civil rights movement played out in daily confrontations, and multiple assassinations and urban riots poisoned the landscape.

The only people doing much dreaming back then were scientists, engineers, and technologists. Their visions of tomorrow derive from their formal training as discoverers. And what inspired them was America’s bold and visible investment on the space frontier.

Exploration of the unknown might not strike everyone as a priority. Yet audacious visions have the power to alter mind-states—to change assumptions of what is possible. When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens’ ambitions. They energize the electorate. During the Apollo era, you didn’t need government programs to convince people that doing science and engineering was good for the country. It was self-evident. And even those not formally trained in technical fields embraced what those fields meant for the collective national future.

For a while there, the United States led the world in nearly every metric of economic strength that mattered. Scientific and technological innovation is the engine of economic growth—a pattern that has been especially true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. That’s the climate out of which the New York World’s Fair emerged, with its iconic Unisphere—displaying three rings—evoking the three orbits of John Glenn in his Friendship 7 capsule.

During this age of space exploration, any jobs that went overseas were the kind nobody wanted anyway. Those that stayed in this country were the consequence of persistent streams of innovation that could not be outsourced, because other nations could not compete at our level. In fact, most of the world’s nations stood awestruck by our accomplishments.

Let’s be honest with one anther. We went to the Moon because we were at war with the Soviet Union. To think otherwise is delusion, leading some to suppose the only reason we’re not on Mars already is the absence of visionary leaders, or of political will, or of money. No. When you perceive your security to be at risk, money flows like rivers to protect us.

But there exists another driver of great ambitions, almost as potent as war. That’s the promise of wealth. Fully funded missions to Mars and beyond, commanded by astronauts who, today, are in middle school, would reboot America’s capacity to innovate as no other force in society can. What matters here are not spin-offs (although I could list a few: Accurate affordable Lasik surgery, Scratch resistant lenses, Cordless power tools, Tempurfoam, Cochlear implants, the drive to miniaturize of electronics…) but cultural shifts in how the electorate views the role of science and technology in our daily lives.

As the 1970s drew to a close, we stopped advancing a space frontier. The “tomorrow” articles faded. And we spent the next several decades coasting on the innovations conceived by earlier dreamers. They knew that seemingly impossible things were possible—the older among them had enabled, and the younger among them had witnessed the Apollo voyages to the Moon—the greatest adventure there ever was. If all you do is coast, eventually you slow down, while others catch up and pass you by.

All these piecemeal symptoms that we see and feel—the nation is going broke, it’s mired in debt, we don’t have as many scientists, jobs are going overseas—are not isolated problems. They’re part of the absence of ambition that consumes you when you stop having dreams. Space is a multidimensional enterprise that taps the frontiers of many disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, geology, atmospherics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. These classic subjects are the foundation of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—and they are all represented in the NASA portfolio.

Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth, because doing what’s never been done before is intellectually seductive (whether deemed practical or not), and innovation follows, just as day follows night. When you innovate, you lead the world, you keep your jobs, and concerns over tariffs and trade imbalances evaporate. The call for this adventure would echo loudly across society and down the educational pipeline.

At what cost? The spending portfolio of the United States currently allocates fifty times as much money to social programs and education than it does to NASA. The 2008 bank bailout of $750 billion was greater than all the money NASA had received in its half-century history; two years’ U.S. military spending exceeds it as well. Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that—a penny on a dollar—we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.

How much would you pay to “launch” our economy?

How much would you pay for the universe?

Here’s what happened, in the 1960’s, we were at war with the Soviet Union, Cold war, and a little bit of hot war over in Vie- South East Asia. So, we fear them because they put up Sputnik. Which, by the way people forget, was an emptied out casing of an intercontinental ballistic missile. And, Sputnik itself means ‘fellow travellers’ it was all peaceful, but it was a ballistic missile head, without explosives. So that was a signal and we freaked in America. So NASA got founded on the fear factor of Sputnik. Alright, so, we then go to the moon on the fear factor that Russia will control high ground. Then, we go to the moon, space enthusiasts say “oh, we’re on the moon by ’69, we’ll be on mars in another ten years”. They completely did not understand why we got to the moon in the first place. We were at war, once we saw that Russia was not ready to land on the moon, we stopped going to the moon. That should not surprise anybody looking back on it.
Meanwhile, however, that entire era galvanized the nation. Forget the war as a driver; it galvanized us all to dream about tomorrow, to think about the homes of tomorrow, the cities of tomorrow, the food of tomorrow. Everything was future world, future land. The world’s fair, all of this was focused on enabling people to make tomorrow come. That was a cultural mindset the space program brought upon us. And, we reaped the benefits of economic growth because you had people wanting to become scientists and engineers who are the people who enable tomorrow to exist today. And, even if you are not a scientist or technologist, you will value that activity and that, in the 21st century are the foundations of tomorrow’s economies and without it we might as well just slide back to the caves, because where we are headed right now, broke.
I’m tired of saying this, but I have to say it again. The NASA budget is 4/10th of one penny on a tax dollar. If I held up a tax dollar, and I cut, horizontally into it 4/10th of one percent of its width, it does not even get you into the ink. So, I will not accept a statement that says we can’t afford it.
Do you realize that the 850 billion dollar bank bailout, that sum of money is greater than the entire 50 year running budget of NASA, and so when someone says we don’t have enough money for this space probe. I’m asking, no, it’s not that you don’t have enough money, it’s that the distribution of money that you’re spending is warped in some way that you are removing the one thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow. The home of tomorrow, the city of tomorrow, transportation of tomorrow. All that ended in the 1970’s, after we stopped going to the moon, it all ended, we stopped dreaming. And so, I worry that decisions that Congress makes doesn’t factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow. They are playing for the quarterly report, they are playing for the next election cycle and that it mortgaging the actual future of this nation. Tomorrow’s gone.
If you double NASA’s budget, right now it’s half a penny on the dollar, make it a penny, go ahead, make it a penny, go ahead, be bold. That would be enough to go to mars soon, with people, and go back to the moon, and onto asteroids. NASA, as best as I can judge, is a force of nature like none other and so what worries me is that if you take away the manned program. A program, which if you advance frontiers you make – heroes are made. There is a force operating on the educational pipeline that will stimulate the formation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists. You birth these people into society. They are the ones that make tomorrow come.
A half a penny. That buys the space station, the space shuttles, all the NASA centers, the rovers, the Hubble telescope, all the astronauts, all of that. Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore. The most powerful agency on the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it needs to be doing, and that’s making dreams come true.
How much would you pay for the universe?

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