Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey


The Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate? – Part 2, Landing on Asteroids?

In 2010 President Obama promised that we will land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025:

. . .  we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crew missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.

Yet, the National Academy of Sciences (in a report filed Nov/Dec 2012) thinks that is a dumb idea. And apparently NASA isn’t behind it either, as it has not allocated resources for this proposed mission, nor has it picked an asteroid on which to land (see AP report 12/5/2012).

Even worse, the Science Academy reports that NASA is adrift with little to no future plans, and blames the public and our elected leaders for this problem given the fact that we have given NASA no guidance.

I must state here that AP says a NASA spokesperson, David Weaver, told them that NASA in fact does have clear and challenging goals. Of course, we wonder, given the report, what those clear goals are.

So, what’s the deal? Who is telling NASA what to do? Who is telling President Obama and other leaders what NASA should be doing? What is NASA doing? Are we headed to an asteroid and Mars? Should we be?

I've also gotta state here that, you know, I am a member of the "public," and nobody asked me what I think NASA should be doing. I mean the news media and political leaders are so easy with their "the public is not providing guidance," but what does that mean, really? They haven't asked us for our guidance as far as I know. Or, by "public" they mean some select group that someone hand picked to represent the public, rather than what most of us citizens think of when we hear that word "public,"  namely, "us."

Apparently President Obama authorized $5 billion dollars for this asteroid mission back in 2010. Is NASA spending that money on asteroid exploration? Or did the money go somewhere else? Or did they even get the money?

In my last post I mentioned that community forums like those hosted by Zocola, are a great idea in a society that purports to be democratic and intelligent (I am referring to the U.S.). But that these forums do little good, other than as socializing cheese and wine gatherings, if they do not address controversy and real issues. Too often these forums (like the one I blogged about Nov 21, 2012) serve only as PR and “feel good about ourselves events,” and contribute next to nothing to our success and future as a people and as a nation.

One of the panelists at that last Zocola event encouraged us to write about science and space at the end of his talk. Well, I took him up on it. I really never planned to write about Mars and space travel, but due to the coincidence of me having had the opportunity to interview a space scientist in Berkeley just the month before, I find myself now compelled to explore this subject. And I am already finding plenty of controversy – and plenty of room for improvement and public discourse!

So, I guess my blogging fate is locked in for the next couple of months, anyway. It’s going to be about space travel, Mars and asteroids.

At the heart of this subject is the same theme I find in most subjects I encounter: what are our goals (this same question is at the heart of our education woes, and as a college teacher for the last several years, I plan to read and write about that soon, too).

In the early 2000s I interviewed my first politician for the Glendale News Press and Burbank Leader – I was writing op-eds for those papers at the time. Scott Wildman, a California State Assembly person, told me something that day that has guided my journalistic exploration ever since. He told me that as a first term Assemblyperson (he had been a school teacher previously), the most important thing he had learned was this: politicians never deal with anything until it has reached emergency status.

I would suggest that same process guides much of our public and private work and decision-making.

Yes. Whoa!

What does that say about our ability to deliberatively debate topics and develop useful goals and strategies? Is there an implication, too, that we just bide our time, randomly setting goals for unnecessary tasks like landing men and women on asteroids, until we have an emergency to address? (like one headed to our planet and about to wreak havoc – which, btw, is something else I will address in a future post as I recently spoke to another scientist about that.)

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