Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Last Shuttle Mission Is Safely Home! - Now Some Recommendations

On July 8, 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis launched safely for the last time, I reflected on "What next?" and complained about the impracticality of manned space exploration. I said: "I'd like NASA to refocus on priorities that are killing us here on Earth right now, not this crazy romantic garbage about travel to the stars, funded by - YOU GUESSED IT - you and me."

I'm not talking about "trickle-down technologies." I hate hearing the argument that we should spend a trillion dollars sending humans to the stars, because building the requisite technologies will create unexpected spin-off technologies that will benefit humankind on Earth. That's an awfully expensive and unpredictable way to create beneficial technologies, don't you think?

Personally, I don't think people will support heavy taxes for manned space ventures. There has to be a well-understood, practical reason for using funds that could be spent on infrastructure and education. Remember the lunar missions? There was all this "destiny" crap about being the first to send humans to the moon. They brought back rocks and we learned some things. But after that, it was just one more expensive, pointless mission to the moon after another. It was theater. And the sequels didn't fill the seats. People withdrew their interest and support and the program was terminated.

Now Atlantis has safely returned to Earth, and that program is over, too.

But NASA has shown that its ability to put satellites into orbit can be used for great benefit. Think about navigation, communication, entertainment, weather forecasting, earth science, and defense. We'd be in the dark ages without all those satellites. And I wouldn't be able to stream Netflix videos.

Well, while the Atlantis crew was in orbit restocking the space station, I had time to think about some valid Earth-centered challenges for NASA. I'm not a scientist. I'm not even a nerd. But even my rocket-challenged brain came up with a few ideas for using space technology with the sole purpose of directly benefiting humankind on Earth.

How about NASA programs for...
  • Detecting and protecting against rogue asteroids that could collide with Earth? Mass extinctions may be cool for the evolution of strange new species, but they're never going to be cool for the human beings who are already here.
  • Detecting and protecting the planet from solar mass ejections. I'm tired of the cosmos squinting at me and saying, "Well punk, do you feel lucky today?"
  • Discovering ways to preserve our atmosphere. You know...that thin, fragile layer of air we breathe and can't survive even seven minutes without?
  • Creating a way to collect and direct to Earth some of the intense energy of the solar wind. That's a tough one, but hooo! what a benefit, and a 100 times easier than traveling to the stars.
  • Figuring out a way to remove all the "space junk" in orbit around the Earth. If one of those pieces slams into my Netflix satellite, I'm going to be so miffed....
So hey NASA, are you tracking me on this? You really do have the most talented scientists and engineers in the world. You guys should be able to come up with a list ten times longer and ten times better than mine.

And I'll tell you a secret. If you'd knock off all this "destiny" nonsense and propose programs that will benefit taxpayers in a direct, practical way - look to the future to solve some real serious problems - I guarantee you that your funding problems would be over.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Sounds good to me, Denny.

My love to you and Kathleen.


Joe said...

The bank bailout was more money than THE ENTIRE RUNNING BUDGET OF NASA SINCE IT STARTED. It is half a penny to the dollar. NASA is not even making a dent in the US budget.

I agree that NASA should invest in technologies that serve a purpose right now on this earth, however it stands for much more. It stands for the human pursuit to push the frontier of knowledge. Do you know how many kids become science-driven because they want to become an astronaut when they are older? That is a priceless asset.

It is inevitabile that the world population will exceed capacity on this earth, so we must pursue the options of living in space/ on another planet. Do you have any idea of the planning that entails? No, because no one does. Why procrastinate with this endeavor just because it doesn't have any immediate results? It's like not doing a homework assignment until the night it is due.

Maybe they can split into two divisions... one dedicated to earthly problems and one dedicated to space exploration?

Denny Coates said...

Thank you, Joe. In succinct fashion you've summarized the classic arguments for pursuing space travel to the stars. No matter what the motives or the reasons that you and others typically conceive, the venture is, as always, impossible. Irrational, romantic dreams. Seriously!

And yes, you're right. We shouldn't be bailing out banks, especially the likes of Bank of America, for goodness sake. But what does that have to do with manned space travel?