Reporter's Note: The President has voiced support for the space program, even citing its inspirational power in a campaign ad. But space advocates have been less than impressed by his vision for the future in infinity and beyond; the subject of today’s letter to the White House.
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Tom Foreman | BIO
Dear Mr. President,
You are headed to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday and we are being told that you are going to unveil a bold new plan for U.S. space exploration, including more money and an eye on Mars. No doubt you’ve heard a good bit of talk from the NASA folks about the jobs that were going to be lost because of your cancellation of the Constellation program which would have replaced the retiring Shuttle. Hopefully this new plan of yours will help answer those worries, but more importantly, I hope it answers the basic question: Are we going to remain serious about space exploration or not?
There are practical reasons why backing away from an aggressive space program could prove to be a very bad idea, aside from the politically obvious one of angering a bunch of voters in a critical state by attacking a key industry.
For starters, by downplaying the space program as you seem to have done so far, you are working against your own goals and ambitions. You have said repeatedly that our schools need to be turning out more students who can excel in mathematics and science. But the space program has been the platinum standard for excellence in those fields for decades now. Why should students and teachers answer your call to excel, if you are simultaneously suggesting you don’t much value the jobs for which they are training? Not to mention, some of the world’s greatest scientists came to the United States because of our commitment to scientific excellence. Will they keep doing so if that commitment flags?
Space exploration is a cornerstone of technological advancement of all sorts. Brilliant inventions rarely flow from someone sitting around saying “I feel like being a genius today.” They come from great minds focusing on great challenges, and exploration of the planets and stars truly is the great frontier. To call a retreat in space, which is certainly what this feels like, is tantamount to Thomas Jefferson saying, “Hey Louis! Clark! On second thought, cancel the canoes. Let’s just go get a beer.”
I’ve said it before: Even folks who do not care about space exploration and believe we have much bigger worries on earth right now, will care if the first flag planted by a person on Mars is Chinese. If we accept second or third place in the space race…behind China and India for example…we may as well go ahead and accept that the sun has set on a part of what has made us great. National prestige is a difficult thing to define, but I suspect it is the kind of thing that is sometimes most understood when it is lost.
Should we re-examine our goals, redirect our efforts, and demand only the very best from our space program? Of course we should. But that requires not timidity, but instead a robust recommitment to our dreams of greatness…not merely for our nation but also for the family of humankind. I hope that is what you are aiming for.
I know you are the president, and I know that requires many tough choices especially in economic hard times. But as you fly down to Florida on Air Force One, look at it this way; if you were an American astronaut going to work…you’d soon have to hitch a ride with the Russians. And that’s not the path to the future greatness and hope in which you have placed so much stock. Good luck. Many of us who love and care about science will be watching.
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