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Such a waste of space

For the current generation of American politicians, the only space exploration that’s viable is between their two ears. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2012 22:50 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

As a compulsive consumer of science fact and fiction and versed in subjects like Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, one of the assignments I’ve enjoyed most as a correspondent was traveling to Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston. That was in 2006, prior to astronaut Sunita Williams making her maiden space voyage in the shuttle Discovery. I was provided access to Building 9, which housed the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This was where lifesize models of various shuttles and the International Space Station were parked.

I’m not sure what that hangar is used for now. Given that the American space programme has been gutted by the Obama administration, the last shuttle launched, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s being used as a hothouse for growing organic arugula. For the current generation of American politicians, the only space exploration that’s viable is between their two ears.

There are exceptions, like Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives. Gingrich, who’s trying to win the party’s nomination to challenge Barack Obama in November, has proposed that America establish a lunar colony by 2020. It’s just the sort of grandiose idea a guy called Newton could concoct. Critics carped that Gingrich’s moon shot was part of political pandering to votes on Florida’s Space Coast.

It was easy enough to categorise as lunacy. Late night comedians howled at the moon. On ‘Comedy Central’, Jon Stewart quipped that Gingrich wanted to leave Earth for a “younger planet,” cannily referring to his multiple marriages. But that joke could have worked just as well for John F Kennedy, when in 1960 he vowed to have a man on the moon within a decade. Kennedy was also mooned by his critics. In fact, his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower described it as a “fantastically expensive crash programme.” Ironically, Nasa was set up during the Eisenhower administration.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who’s still expected to win the Republican party’s nomination to run for president despite a string of setbacks, voiced his opposition: “It may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea.” Yet another convert to the church reciting the mantra of mental midgetry.

Obviously, out-of-this-world objectives are outré in Obamaland. Nasa’s budget has been pared. The Bush regime’s Constellation programme to replace the space shuttles has been scrapped. Given the craters that afflict the roads around Obama’s home base in Chicago, it’s hardly surprising that lunar terrain isn’t very attractive to his administration. It’s no longer, Space: The Final Frontier, but Space: The Final Affront.

America’s politicians have a clear message; they can’t place the moon on the menu, the best they can offer is minimum wage employment at the closest McDonald’s. Just about the only sphere where Americans are still able to think really big is when it comes to pumping steroids into the deficit.

Critics say a moon mission would cost too much. Even the most extravagant budgeting for it will deliver a figure that’s about 3% of America’s deficit. Though it’s fine, as Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro stressed, to spend money to create a diaper bank.

They conveniently forget that the moon project may actually be cost effective, especially if private sector participation is accounted for. The government, as it has proved with Amtrak, can’t even send a train from Washington to New York without major cost escalations.

And the byproducts of developing space technology have definite value unlike, say, those of used diapers. The space race didn’t just revolutionise communications technology, but yielded stuff like sneakers, freeze-dried food, ATMs and MRIs, among many others.

But it’s not going to happen because America has forgotten how to think big and is content with meandering along in mediocrity.

This is the psychology of a nation in a mental recession. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have created a climate of low expectations. It’s the age of thinking small.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal