I am awed by the cosmos, and on those nights when I'm lucky enough to escape civilization's lights and peer into the heavens, I lie on my back on the ground and drink in the enormity of it all. The northern lights thrill me, meteor showers hypnotize me, and the answers to the great questions of our existence seem to hover in the cool, inky vastness. I let my imagination fly to the moon and beyond.
But I don't want to go there.
I am a bad astronaut. I am not on board with President Bush's new Vision for Space Exploration, which compels NASA to return Americans to the moon and take us to Mars. I am one of those people, and there are more of us every day, who believe that the planet Earth is in peril. We've degraded our environment so quickly, so blindly, and so greedily that it may be uninhabitable, or at least very inhospitable, within just a few generations. The right thing to do, in fact the only thing to do, is to marshal our resources and try to correct our suicidal course. Our leading scientific and engineering minds should be dedicated to seeking solutions for our earthly problems-not wasting precious time and resources on manned space exploration.
Spend any time online among 'space activists' and you'll find a strain of deep-felt, long-running frustration with people like me. The let's-go-to-space folks consider themselves bold, brave, and forward thinking, while they see us earthbound types as stuck in our old ways, unable to take that great imaginative leap into the void.
Here's my great leap of imagination: Let's learn how to get along with each other and live sustainably on Earth. Let's launch an era in which mutual cooperation leads us to save our precious, beautiful planet and ourselves. Let's boldly go where we've never gone before.
Even if you're not with me on my mission, stop painting my fellow space skeptics and me as opponents of science. Our president is the most potent detractor of science in the country, steadfastly altering, suppressing, or flat-out ignoring well-established findings on stem cells, global warming, and other vitally important issues. This is a man who told us after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that we all ought to go shopping. Now I am supposed to believe that, as we face the prospect of environmental collapse, the best response is to go to Mars? Bush's space vision has prompted a loud outcry from scientists who, like me, are deeply critical of the retooled NASA mission, which shifts priorities away from research and toward the more glamorous, risky, and costly goal of manned space flight.
Certainly, there is human value to the study of space, from simply gaining knowledge to developing spin-off technologies to providing national defense. Let's keep looking upward to learn what we can, using unmanned flights whenever possible, and let's not leave ourselves vulnerable to attack. But let's also be wary of promises that are driven more by fearmongers, desperate politicians, and aerospace industry lobbyists than by real needs. And let's not be fooled into thinking that the space people will always act ethically and in the public interest. There is a rocket fuel chemical in my wife's breast milk, and my sons have drunk it. That's one of space flight's less glorious legacies.
Recently, some gung-ho proponents of space exploration have taken my main point-we are straining Earth's resources to the breaking point-and cynically tried to turn it to their advantage. We must go to space, they say, to find a new home, or new energy sources, or some friendly aliens who can show us the way. These are all long-shot propositions akin to hoping to win the lottery, whereas dramatic and cataclysmic climate change is now a near certainty. I'm going with the safer bet: Stay and fight.