Saturday, August 02, 2008

Obama Shifts Spaceward

Although political "flip flopping" is sometimes condemned as if it were a crime, let's face it - politicians are always adjusting their positions and sometimes even reversing them. Situations change, new information and analysis becomes available, mistakes are made, strategies are changed. If there's a good reason to change a position, and if the candidate can explain and justify it, it's crazy to stick to the original position for its own sake.

This doesn't mean that it's OK to just say whatever you want for the circumstance or the current audience (besides, for a presidential election, the whole world is your audience anyway). Consistency is important, but I think it's most important to be consistent at the big-picture level of what's good for America. Of course if candidates change their positions too much or too erratically, their opponents will point this out, and if those positions are really not workable and good for America, the people will see this too and vote accordingly.

McCain and Obama have both changed positions on issues, and today it seems that Obama has significantly reversed his previous position on space exploration and NASA. He had originally proposed delaying the Constellation program by five years and using the savings to fund an early education program. I disagreed with this position because I believe the savings would be too small to make a difference in any significant social program, and because NASA and its work force are an important national resource that would be difficult to rebuild. Even with the growth in private space (which I believe NASA should be funded to support at a higher level), I believe that NASA's 0.6% of the Federal budget represents a true investment in our future, unlike so many other Federal programs.

Today in a speech in Titusville, Florida that was largely focused on economic issues (according to a community blog on Obama's web site), Obama changed his position and emphasized the risk of the US losing its competitive edge in space capability. He proposed extending the shuttle program by one launch and speeding development on the Constellation program to minimize the gap in US manned space capability. Of course he's talking about jobs in this region, but he had a bigger picture in mind as well:

"More broadly, we need a real vision for space exploration. To help formulate this vision, I’ll reestablish the National Aeronautics and Space Council so that we can develop a plan to explore the solar system – a plan that involves both human and robotic missions, and enlists both international partners and the private sector. And as America leads the world to long-term exploration of the moon, Mars, and beyond, let’s also tap NASA’s ingenuity to build the airplanes of tomorrow and to study our own planet so we can combat global climate change. Under my watch, NASA will inspire the world, make America stronger, and help grow the economy here in Florida."

Right on!


Anonymous said...

The sad truth is that 90% of the American populace don't give a flying fig about space exploration. Once Apollo failed to morph into Star Trek, they lost interest, and Presidents and candidates ever since have followed suit by ignoring the issue. It's time to face the fact that we're bound to this blue marble forever.

FlyingSinger said...

True enough that most people don't care about space exploration per se. They also don't especially care about materials research that gives them hard drives for their iPods, biological research that might someday lead to useful new drugs, and many other wonky things that engineers and scientists do. They mostly care about results that can benefit them, and to a certain extent they enjoy novelty for its entertainment value.

People like things that space technology has given us, like hurricane warnings and GPS, though this stuff happens mostly near the Earth and without astronauts, and most people don't think much about the space connection anyway.

Some people do care about national competitiveness and technology when it affects jobs, especially their own. But apparently not enough to demand better education systems let alone space exploration. That's a problem that will be solved, in some countries at least.

Apollo is still a tough act to follow. So many things went well and so much money and priority went into it in those few amazing years, and it was also quite novel and entertaining (for a while).

So I can understand your cynicism and pessimism. But "forever" is a long time. I'd love to see humans on Mars in my lifetime, but it may not happen for 50 more years. I'd love to see Americans as key partners when it does happen (I hope and assume it will be an international effort). But maybe it will be the Chinese. And maybe it will take another full-blown space race or a near-hit by an asteroid to really kick things into gear. Or maybe it will only take a couple of companies finally making a big profit in space and going public.

It could go many ways. I went into a technical field myself because of Gemini and Apollo, and many other engineers and scientists were similarly inspired. This was the "human spinoff" from the space program of the 60's that greatly helped the development of US technology businesses for many years afterward.

It's easy to be cynical and pessimistic, but optimism is a better strategy. Maybe nothing much will happen in the next 8 or 15 years, but I'm optimistic that space will open up vast new opportunities for mankind, and that new discoveries and developments will come along that will again make it exciting to more people.

This blue marble isn't so bad. We can still do a lot with it and we should. But "bound here forever" is a lot like those predictions of respected physicists and others who confidently said in 1902 that heavier than air flight was essentially impossible. It's a very shortsighted view, unless your "forever" only extends through an administration or two.