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The Current Frontier

The Current Frontier

President Obama has taken some heat for his reshaping of NASA’s goals, essentially abandoning the been-there-done-that emphasis on the moon for the more dreamy-eyed vision of a manned landing on Mars within just 15 years.

Even in austere times, no president wants to be the one to halt or slow down our progress in space, despite the far more pressing needs for our billions here on the ground. But Obama, to his credit, has cut the $108 billion Constellation rocket program that would replace the aging space shuttle fleet to be retired this year while adding $6 billion for a Mars-related program over the next five years.

The president’s eyes are likely on the history books and his place in them as the man who pointed us toward the red planet. But it’s unfortunate that he didn’t aim for a different legacy as one who more thoroughly redirected our resources where they ought to be, from the final frontier to the urgent pressing needs of the current one.The space program is the ultimate example of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. We design and build spacecraft so we can test them and learn how to build more spacecraft. We carry out experiments in space to learn how well we can live in space to carry out more experiments.

While it would be wonderful to travel to distant planets and explore them, the proponderance of scientific evidence is that, regardless of what you may see on "Star Trek," it will never be possible. Just getting to Mars, our closest neighbor, would take months; years or decades to get anywhere else, and human beings probably wouldn’t survive very well in space for all that time, especially when we’re prone to mishaps like Apollo 13 and the two shuttle disasters. Real astronauts know, and have said, that the faster-than-light-speed travel you see in the movies is a scientific joke.

In an interview on CNN on Thursday prefacing the president’s address, Dr. Mae Jemison, a highly accomplished scientist and astronaut, said it was likley the president wants to move on from space shuttles and the moon and "do more amazing things."

Here’s something that would be amazing: Pouring $17.6 billion — last year’s NASA budget — into medical research that could spare the earthbound from long, debilitating and cruel diseases. The president’s stimulus package adds $5 billion for medical and scientiic research. He also increased the National Institutes of Health budget by $10 billion to $39 billion. But there is ground to make up. In 2008, according to an analysis by the University of Rochester, nationwide funding from the NIH and private industry fell by 2 percent, when funds are adjusted for inflation, from the $86.4 billion of 2007.

In 2003, seven Americans and an Israeli gave their lives aboard an aging spaceship (I wouldn’t take a 22-year-old car on a long highway trip; how did we fly 22-year old shuttles into space?) for the cause of conducting a few meager experiments in space and testing out some new equipment. Unless there is a more classified purpose of the mission we haven’t heard, the toll simply wasn’t worth the potential gain. The same could likely be said about the 1986 Challenger disaster.

The reason we’re so interested in space, aside from the military aspects, is hubris. It’s the rocket’s red glare of our days, those flaming behemoths soaring into the clouds that tell the rest of the world how mighty and impressive we are. Reaching for other planets has superpower written all over it.

But if we tried, we might find that eradicating some diseases, or assessing and mitigating the effects of climate change and taking better care of the planet we’re on might also win us an admirer or two.

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