by Jonathan McNicol
For our show today, we wanted to do something a little different; we wanted to focus on some smaller ideas in some of the narrower areas of human thinking—little things like the origins of life and our universe, like the quest to move the frontiers of exploration farther outward, like the effort to better understand, oh, everything around us, everything that’s ever been, and everything that might ever be.
After some heavy brainstorming, it occurred to us that the way to better understand these smaller, attention-starved details might be to do a show on NASA and on the space sciences. President Obama—as always, looking out for Where We Live‘s needs—was nice enough to schedule a big Space Forum for tomorrow at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Our friend, National Public Radio NASA expert and Alabama Public Radio news director Pat Duggins, joined us to help try to sort this all out and summed up the questions and concerns nicely:
The big repercussions of all of this are that in Florida, for example, they’re estimating that 7,000 jobs are going to be lost with the end of the Space Shuttle program. And then in Alabama, the Hunstville Marshall Space Flight Center is developing Orion and Ares—that’s the Moon program that’s getting cut—and they’re worried about 2,000 jobs being lost there.
So, I think that Mr. Obama is really going to have a tough audience when he shows up at the Kennedy Space Center tomorrow to lay out his plan. I mean, he thinks he knows what he’s doing. And a lot of people are worried about the loss of jobs, the loss of being able to put human beings up into orbit with a NASA spacecraft for at least five to seven years—we’re going to have to rely on the Russians for that.
Everything is in flux right now, and that’s what’s so very jarring for the men and women who work for NASA.
And planetary geologist and Wesleyan professor Dr. Martha Gilmore, whose interests lie both in the pure science and in the lofty ideals, sees hope in the president’s budget and thinks that we, as a species, don’t ultimately have a choice about some of these issues:
I believe that we absolutely should [be going to the Moon and then on to Mars]. These planets are very important for our understanding of the evolution of the solar system, the evolution of our own planet, and for perhaps the most important question of our time, which is, how did life evolve in the solar system, and how did we come to be here?
So, it is absolutely essential that we continue our exploration of these planets. The manner in which we do it is open to debate. And certainly, Mr. Obama has given a vote of confidence to NASA by increasing the NASA budget overall—which is not a given—and therefore continuing funding for the very successful robotic program and spacecraft that we have on the way or in orbit right now, which are bringing back amazing data for us to study.
Now, humans can do things that robots can’t. And the future of exploration willinclude humans to get the greatest scientific return, and to satisfy our curiosity as a species and the need for exploration that is so inherent to us.