Houston, We Have a Problem

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.

UTNE
UTNE
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