My Washington Examiner column this week is on the final flight of the Space Shuttle, and what looks to be the withering away of the manned space program. In 2004, President Bush announced plans for a moonbase and an eventual Mars mission. But last year President Obama effectively cancelled the moonbase, and has exhibited little desire to liberate Mars. That's good news, I argue:
"We are retiring the shuttle in favor of nothing," Michael Griffin, Bush's NASA administrator, wailed to the Washington Post recently.
Here, as usual, "nothing" gets a bad rap. I'll be "in favor of nothing" until the advocates of federally funded spaceflight can come up with an argument for it that doesn't make me spray coffee out my nose.
NASA's Griffin failed that test in 2005, when he gave an interview to the Washington Post insisting it was essential that "Western values" accompany those who eventually "colonize the solar system," because "we know the kind of society we would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag on Mars. Is that what you're looking for?"
Well ... is it, punk?
When you strip away the few half-hearted "practical" arguments space partisans offer (it turns out that the space program didn't even give us TANG, by the way) you're mostly left with sentimental piffle. Listening to some of them, I'm half-tempted to mount a First Amendment challenge to the space program as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
A 2008 report from MIT on "The Future of Human Spaceflight" argued that federal funding was justified as a means to promote "an expansion of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human.” Those are *scientists* making that argument. But if your best explanation for why spaceflight is a public good gets into "sweet mystery of life" territory, then maybe you don't have a very good argument for public funding.
Unfortunately, President Obama didn’t actually kill funding for human spaceflight. We're now embarked on a public-private partnership, with NASA dollars flowing to companies like Space X. In fact, Obama has publicly pledged to seek slight increases in NASA's budget.
But whether it's done via a "government-business partnership" or not, there's no reason we should be funding manned space exploration at all.
This is another thing President Eisenhower got right, incidentally:
he "would not be willing," he said, "to spend tax money to send a man around the moon . . . There is such a thing as common sense," he said, "even in research." A moon project would be just "a stunt."
But, since federally funded human spaceflight is a massive, "heroic," allegedly inspiring but ultimately senseless government crusade, it's no surprise, I guess, that neoconservatives love it. And nobody loves it more than Charles Krauthammer. Here he is in 2007, waxing rhapsodic about "the music of the spheres.":
You should feel something when our little species succeeds in establishing new life in a void that for all eternity had been the province of the gods. If you don't feel that, you are—don't take this personally—deaf to the music of our time.
Look up, Krauthammer urged spacefans in 2009, after it had become clear that Barack Obama lacked “Kennedy’s enthusiasm” to boldly go, etc. “That is the moon,” Krauthammer declared, and “for the first time in history,” it had become “a nightly rebuke.” This is the burden of the Interplanetary Greatness Conservative: the moon—the very moon!—mocks you.
Personally, I'm deaf to "the music of the spheres." But I'm all for the efforts of private entrepreneurs who can hear it. If people want to advance space exploration on their own dime and at their own risk, more power to them. And the government should neither help nor hinder them.