I grew up with the romantic notion that NASA is not merely a government agency, but an organization dedicated to bravely propelling the human race forward into a glorious future of scientific advancement and discovery. But after reading a recent article in The Economist, I have no choice but to question that idealistic view.
According to this piece, which ran, I believe, in the April 9 issue, NASA exists largely to provide an economic boost to the American aerospace industry, particularly Boeing. NASA gets away with this thinly veiled pork-barrel politicking, the piece contended, by distracting the public with "bread-and-circus" space missions that emphasize thrills over genuinely useful scientific discovery.
Case in point: the tremendously wasteful expense of sending humans into space. A robotic probe costs far less to launch than a human, does the work far more reliably and efficiently, lasts centuries with no food or air, and never needs to be brought back. But the massive public interest in manned space flight and the human drama it offers renders all that moot.
Consider the hoopla surrounding John Glenn's return flight to space. He got a ticker-tape parade and front-page coverage, but what did science actually gain? Meanwhile, how often does your favorite newscaster mention the Hubble telescope, a genuinely useful yet far less compelling tool of exploration?
The article noted that a reassessment of NASA's motives and goals is especially relevant now. As we speak, one of Christa MacAuliffe's fellow teachers is undergoing training to ride the shuttle in what the media are portraying as "the mission Christa never got to carry out." With all due respect to the families of the victims of the Challenger disaster, can we really justify the tremendous expense for what essentially amounts to a touching, movie-of-the-week photo-op? What exactly do we plan to learn from this shuttle mission? Will it lead to scientific advances that remotely begin to justify the exorbitant costs?
It's too bad the folks in Washington aren't likely to heed the lessons of this article, because it's time we started making NASA accountable for its wasteful, PR-driven expenditures.
Eeeeeeuuuuuwww! The Economist says! The Economist says! I read The Economist! Aren't I cool? Aren't you impressed with me?
What do you read? Time? Newsweek? Those are for people who can't handle a real news magazine like the one I read. That's because you're not as smart or sophisticated as me.
On weekends, I like to sit out on my porch in my wicker chair with my bifocals and my subscription copy of The Economist. Then, when I go to a professor's wine-and-cheese party later that night, I can casually mention all the fancy stuff I read about NASA and Venezuela and Gen. Pervez Musharraf in my fancy magazine and impress everybody.
Question: Do you think I'm smarter than everyone else because I read The Economist, or do I read The Economist because I'm smarter than everyone else? Now, there's a conundrum! I should mail that one in to The Economist and see what they think!
Oh, no! My brain just got larger! Help! I need more knowledge to fill up the new brains! Get me the new issue of The Economist at once! I can't live if I'm even remotely unaware of anything that is happening in the universe! I must have my weekly issue of The Economist, or I risk de-evolving into the sort of mouth-breathing rabble by which I am surrounded daily!
I say, old chap, here comes Lord Smartingford of Braintonshire! Shall we dine upon a nice cup of tea, then? We can discuss the economy, and the global situ-AYYY-tion, and ever so many other matters! I am so very versed in such matters, reading as do I The Economist, just as soon as the postman delivers it by the estate, don't you know. I find that only the right cracking coverage of The E-CON-omist keeps me jolly-well informed and all that, wouldn't you agree? Mmm, yes, I did think you would!