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The Necessity of Space Exploration

As folks might recall, I'm a big fan of Dr. Carolyn Porco, the planetary scientist who is the leader of the Imaging Science Team on the Cassini mission and director of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations.

In honor of the 45th anniversary of John Glenn's orbit, Dr. Porco has an op-ed piece in today's New York Times: NASA Goes Deep by Carolyn Porco (permalink; no registration required). The piece is definitely worth reading, and I commend it to your attention. The gist of her piece is that there should be no conflict between manned exploration and robotic exploration of the solar system, but that we should pursue them both as we move through the early years of the 21st century. In a way, she forgives the human race for abandoning manned exploration once we reached the Moon in 1969, as she points out that this is part of a pattern that has existed throughout history. But it is now time for us to return to the Moon, and this time to stay.

My hope is that Porco's vision of the future will come to pass. As she herself points out, her vision requires "adequate financing and a long-term cross-administration commitment that supports steady, uninterrupted progress." The cost of space exploration sounds large when presented as final budget numbers, but these numbers often pale in comparison to the amounts spent on other government programs. I hope the American people, and the citizens of the world, will make the commitment to reach for the stars. Because if we don't, in five billion years, all traces of our existence, that we were once here, the we mattered – all of that will be wiped out in an instant.
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Comments

You're right, it's a good article. I'd love to see it happen.
"Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics - and you'll get ten different answers. But there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on: whether it happens in a hundred years, or a thousand years, or a million years, eventually our sun will grow cold, and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us; it'll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-tsu, Einstein, Maruputo, Buddy Holly, Aristophanes -- all of this. All of this was for nothing, unless we go to the stars."

--Jeffrey Sinclair, from "Infection"
Even beyond the necessity to leave Earth (we have at least a billion years before the sun grows hot/large enough to boil the oceans) so much technology ported to everyday life has been brought forth by the space program. We've become a nation more embroiled in the happenings of Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears to care about space exploration (and science in general for that matter). When was the last time Cassini made front-page news? Other than the actual launch (which is local news for us), even the shuttle missions get barely a mention.

In short, we not only need the funding but a shift in attitude as a nation as well.

-Keith
Perhaps, except which government agency has funded more, and more profound, technology that has then been ported to everyday life, NASA or DOD? Is your argument that we should also be spending more money on the military, to better facilitate these fringe benefits?
I don't know about Porco's argument, but my basic argument has nothing to do with spinoffs or fringe benefits from the space program. My ultimate goal is to see the human race do what it needs to do to ensure its survival.

I think Larry Niven once noted that the dinosaurs died out because they didn't have a space program. I wouldn't want us to die out for the same reason.
I was responding more to Keith's argument than to yours or Porco's.
Ah. Sorry.
I agree we should do what is needed for our survival as a species, but I do think we have a lot of time before Earth is unable to support the human species. By no means do I think space programs should be curtailed. I was just adding there are other and immediate benefits to our space program.

I apologize if my comment seemed off-base.
I don't think your comment was off-base.

I'm reminded of how the world was portrayed in the movie Apollo 13. The American public had stopped watching space launches live on TV, and had moved onto other things. Until, of course, the lives of the astronauts were suddenly at risk.

I think we need to figure out a way to make space exciting again, and I think the pictures from the space probes have helped.
The interesting thing to me is that NASA's websites are some of the most popular in the whole world. People are much more willing to pay for the space program when it's presented to them as $1 per person per year. Instead, they see a $300 million price tag for the year, and don't even bother comparing it to the rest of the spending that's happening.
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