NASA's Space Station Freedom survived the most recent round of appropriations hearings. $10 billion have already been spent on the station, and the final cost is expected to reach $30 billion.
The battle over Freedom is being waged on several fronts. Politicians argue that the station has already provided 13,000 new jobs and will continue to be a stimulus to the economy. Scientists claim that Freedom will facilitate research in many fields. Finally, its supporters argue that the space station represents the next step in humanity's exploration of space.
Of all of these flawed arguments, "jobs" is the most ill-conceived. It is not at all clear whether or not the economy will benefit from such a stimulus, and even were it warranted, the Space Station is not the right project to fund. Bridges and roads are decaying, public housing is crumbling, and our natural environment is withering. Devoting $20 billion to these projects will provide a much greater direct benefit to the American people than Freedom will.
The scientists have a more compelling argument. They say that the near-zero gravity of the space station will allow them to grow extraordinarily pure semiconductor crystals, or to do certain types of cancer research.
Important, worthy projects, to be sure. But do they require a laboratory that costs $30 billion and is only expected to last for fifteen years? It would be much cheaper to launch unmanned satellites into orbit with experiments on board.
People at NASA, however, are quite content to continue to do science aboard manned spacecraft. They've been doing it for years with the Space Shuttle. Scientific instruments are normally carried on the shuttles, but the astronauts are not needed to run the experiments. Aside from a few maintenance-oriented missions, for which a human presence is required, Space Shuttle missions merely do what an unmanned launch could do--at many times the cost. Using most of NASA's resources on the shuttles and Freedom means that unmanned science experiments and missions are underfunded.
So from a scientist's point of view, the current manned program is unjustified and wasteful. But many of Freedom's advocates argue that the pursuit of scientific knowledge is not what manned spaceflight is all about. No, it's about humanity transcending its current planetary limits. And it's about astronauts sailing through the blackness of space and walking on the surface of new worlds, just as Christopher Columbus did half a millennium ago.
Why is it necessary to visit and colonize other planets? Why do we feel compelled to travel to distant worlds? Aside from humanity's innate curiosity, some say that in the future, there may be a need to vacate planet Earth. Says astronomer Carl Sagan, "There is a long-term historical reason having to do with not putting all our eggs in one planetary basket, given the claims that global catastrophes have overtaken our planet in the past and that one is eventually likely to occur again, even if the chances are very slight."
Slight is an understatement. The probability of the Earth colliding with an asteroid is beyond minuscule. Nevertheless, everyone seems to have space-borne disasters on the brain.
Instead of reflecting reality, the preoccupation with outer space stems from a tendency to project our troubles onto asteroids and little green men. For example, most psychologists believe that victims of so-called alien abduction are subconsciously expressing their innermost fears and desires.
Certainly nobody is to be blamed for having neuroses or for writing stories about fictional extraterrestrial beings. But fantasy and reality are not the same, and when it comes time to solve our planet's most pressing problems, we must push fiction aside. It's possible that an asteroid will collide with the earth in five thousand years, but if we are not careful, it will not collide with a living, breathing planet, but rather with a radioactive piece of dead rock or a fatally poisoned ecosystem. It's not destruction from above that we must worry; it's about destruction at our own hands.
Even though it is clear that Freedom will not bear the fruits of interplanetary travel for generations to come (one trip to Mars would cost an estimated $500 billion!), its supporters argue that it is needed for today. In this age of cynicism and hopelessness, they say, it will give our nation a much-needed boost of self-esteem. Says astronaut Eugene Cernan of his trip to the moon: "We did things that people thought could not be done...I know most people at the time thought it was impossible." The Space Station would be to the `90's what the Apollo program was to the `60's: a beacon of hope, a symbol of humanity overcoming insurmountable obstacles, with the United States bravely leading the way.
It's a nice sentiment, but I don't think that a child growing up in a poor, crime-ridden ghetto would buy it. Neither would Bosnians, Rwandans or the homeless people that line the streets of Cambridge. Before we built monuments to ourselves in the sky, we must halt the economic decay of our cities, alleviate human suffering and help our neighbors acquire the basic necessities of life. The pro-Freedom slogan reads: "The Space Station: It's About Life on Earth." Maybe, but dealing with poverty, crime, famine and war are about "life on earth," too. Once we've made some headway with these problems, then we can have the Space Station for dessert.
Imust admit that I am writing this with a divided heart. Part of me objects to it: the part that dreams about outer space, that as child turned my playroom into the bridge of a spaceship. In third grade, I even wrote a short science-fiction story about an astronaut who is sent to the far ends of the galaxy to investigate a mysterious alien message.
It's sad to turn our backs on a dream, no matter how distant it is and no matter how briefly we turn away. But the universe has waited for us for fifteen billion years; a couple more won't really matter. One day we will inherit the stars, but for now we should concentrate our efforts upon things that are a bit closer to home.