A few days ago, my wife and I watched Enterprise, the first Space Shuttle, being flown to its new exhibit site in New York. It was an emotional experience, reaching its peak when the image of the shuttle flying on the back of a specially designed Boeing 747 was juxtaposed with two reminders of the violence that has beset our country. As the news anchor was interviewing Mark Kelly, astronaut and husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was grievously wounded in a shooting that left 6 others dead, the 747 carrying the shuttle flew by the Freedom Tower, which is being built on the site of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. This juxtaposition of the technology that is emblematic of the highest of human achievements against powerful reminders of those who would pervert it to the demands of hatred and dogma left us speechless.
I was also saddened because this event marks the continued erosion of an approach to space exploration and a vision of government supported science that not only created the shuttle, but also put men on the moon, sent spacecraft to explore the outer planets of our solar system, and focused the Hubble Space Telescope on the edges of the Universe itself. Throughout the morning, NASA spokespeople tried to put a positive spin on the changes to the space program, reminding us that we needed a new generation of spacecraft to further space exploration. They spoke positively of the growth of private space exploration and the potential of public/private partnerships. They repeatedly cited SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and Sir Richard Branson’s work with Virgin Galactic as examples of the future of space exploration.
Although I have great admiration for both Mr. Musk and Mr. Branson, and wish them the best in all their endeavors, I could not escape a deep feeling of loss. You see, whereas SpaceX and Virgin Galactic belong to Musk, Branson and their backers, NASA belongs to me.
When NASA first launched Alan Shepherd into space, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and when the shuttle program established the enduring presence of humans in space, I felt the pride of someone who was, in however small a fashion, a part of those endeavors. These were not the accomplishments of a wealthy elite, but the pride of all humanity, expressing our aspirations through the resources of the world’s greatest democracy. When NASA chose the men and women to fly into space, they chose the pilots and scientists who were best qualified to represent the dreams of humanity, rather than selling the privilege to a few billionaires who wanted to check another experience off their bucket lists.
I cannot help but wonder if there is more to this than the “shifting priorities” and “fiscal realities” that are often cited as justifications for the downsizing of NASA. I believe it is another instance of the struggle between a progressive view of what a unified population can accomplish through the machinery of democratic government, and a visceral opposition to the idea of progressive government and civic order from enemies abroad and extremists at home. It is the conflict symbolized by the image of the space shuttle flying past the site of the September 11 attacks, and the recollection of domestic gun violence against an elected official and the citizens who assembled peacefully to support our government.
Although these are extreme examples, they do reflect a pervasive undercurrent in our political discourse. Too many of my fellow citizens reject the very idea of government, rather than accepting our responsibility as citizens to insure the viability of government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” What is worse, too many “legitimate” politicians opportunistically embrace the most extreme anti-government rhetoric as their own, dutifully lining up behind Grover Nordquist’s call to “drown government in the bathtub,” or defending Ted Nugent’s rants about beheading government officials. I honestly do not understand why so many citizens of the world’s most prosperous, safest, most vibrant democracy have chosen to view their own government as the oppressive manifestation of some shadowy conspiracy. I am saddened that so many politicians see this irrational hatred of government as an easily manipulated source of votes, forgetting that this same rage they have encouraged will leave them unable to govern if they are elected. I believe the downsizing of NASA, of the space program I have long called my own, is only one effect of this erosion of American political discourse and a shared civic identity.
As we approach the 2012 elections, I hope that Mr. Romney will move away from his more extreme positions with the same chameleon-like efficiency that he demonstrated in moving toward them. I hope that Mr. Obama will abandon the sham bi-partisanship that has crippled his administration and turn his intellectual and political gifts to fighting the forces of hatred and ignorance that beset our democracy. I hope that both men will, through word and example, promote ideas of civic responsibility, unity, compromise, cooperation, and a progressive vision of the future and the role of government “by the people” in securing that future.
I also hope that whomever wins in November will restore funding for NASA and the space program to levels reflecting the importance of humanity’s future in the Universe.
Please, give me back my space program.