America needs more argonauts, not astronauts

August 11, 2010

I know what you're thinking: "What's this guy talking about? What do argonauts and astronauts have to do with designing and constructing buildings?" Indulge me for a moment, Dear Reader, as I do my best to connect the dots.

My argument is this: We need to shift priorities from manned exploration of space to human exploration of our own planet. Instead of seeking the "ultimate goal" of going to Mars, as astronaut Eugene Cernan suggested last month on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we need to concentrate our precious research dollars on our oceans and seas and the air around us, so that we can preserve the fragile planet that the Apollo missions so brilliantly revealed to us.

A historical perspective: On October 4, 1957, Russia's launch of Sputnik threw fear into every American's heart. The race for "control" of space was on, but as our rockets kept exploding on their launch pads, we were reduced to playing catch-up. The ultimate embarrassment came on April 12, 1961, when a Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human in space.

Those who are too young to have lived through this period may find it hard to appreciate the near-jingoist sense of national mission that accompanied President Kennedy's call, a month later, to send a man—a red-blooded American, of course!—to the moon before the end of the decade.

And oh, that magical evening of July 20, 1969! How I remember frantically fiddling with the antenna of a clunky black-and-white TV so I wouldn't miss Neil Armstrong taking that famous small step, that giant leap.

Looking back, it is clear that the space race had more to do with geopolitics than science. True, the space program employed thousands and helped turn Houston into our fourth-largest city. But NASA didn't invent Tang, and the manned space program's so-called "technological spin-offs" were minimal.

So, enough already. We've done the moon. Nor do we need to go to Mars to supplement our rock collection.

This is not an academic exercise. At this writing, a committee appointed by President Obama is reviewing the entire U.S. human space flight program.

Here's my recommendation: Take a few billion from NASA's $17 billion budget and give it to poor NOAA, the federal agency that studies our oceans and atmosphere (annual budget: $4 billion). Use those scarce dollars to fund lots more R&D on climate change—ocean exploration, atmospheric studies—research that might help us solve the most vexing problem facing humanity—and the built environment—right here on good ol' Mother Earth.

NASA would still have plenty of dough for valuable unmanned scientific missions like the Hubble Telescope. So let's keep shooting for the stars. Just don't put any more Americans up there.


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