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A New President…


… and a new direction for NASA and space exploration?

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last 24 hours you’ll have heard that Barack Obama has been elected as the next President of the United States, a momentous event and a stunning achievement. Obviously Obama will face all kinds of challenges when he takes office in January, ike the global financial crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc, but being totally selfish I can’t help but wonder what effect his election will have on my own passion – space exploration. Will Obama be a friend to NASA and science? Will he support the exploration of the solar system – manned and unmanned – by funding NASA adequately? Will he go with the troubled Ares rocket and Constellation program, or look for an alternative? Will he be a New Kennedy who sees, in space, a challenge that can bring not just his own country but the world together? Will he be the visionary we’ve been waiting for, who “gets” space, and sets us, finally, on the road to Mars?

So far the signs haven’t been that good. Admittedly during the campaign Obama’s support for NASA grew. He started off by famously saying that he’d actually take money OFF NASA to help fund his plans for education, but the backlash from the space industry workers in Florida – a key state in the election – meant that plan was quickly scrapped, and by the end of the campaign Obama was making speeches pledging to support NASA and make it “inspiring” again. But I read the transcripts of those speeches, and heard and saw some of them, and they just struck me, I’m afraid, as rhetoric, another example of a politician desperate for votes telling an audience exactly what they wanted to hear. He was after votes. That’s okay, it’s what politicians do after all, but if Obama is genuinely going to make NASA inspirational again, if he is going to encourage science, if he is going to set a new course for the exxploration of the solar system, then he needs to find inspiration of his own from somewhere, because looking at him when he speaks about space it’s clear to me there’s no personal passion behind his words, he’s really just been playing to a crowd. Maybe it was just me being cynical, or grumpy, or both, but the story he told about sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders and waving a Stars and Stripes flag at “returning astronauts” – touching and moving, no doubt, classic West Wing stirring stuff – would have been a lot more convincing if he’d actually named the space missions the astronauts were returning from…

I’m not saying for a moment that he’s a fake. Far from it. He’s a professional politician and he knows how to pull a crowd’s strings and to get people to tick his name on a ballot paper. He is clearly a very intelligent man too, a man of vision… so I have a suspicion, a niggling feeling, that if he is given the right advice, and guidance, and given an opportunity to learn about the importance and drama of space exploration, he might be a good thing for “space” and actually Get It. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

He faces some extremely tough challenges and choices, and space will not be his #1 priority. It can’t be, to be fair. Even I, one of the most rabid supporters of manned missions to Mars, accept that – even if the technology existed, which it doesn’t – there just isn’t the political will, public support or money available for sending people to Mars right now, so there’s no point lobbying Obama to do that. But he will have a huge say in the future of NASA when it comes to the fate of the ISS, the development of the Ares rocket and Constellation hardware, and the eventual return To The Moon, so what he does, thinks and says is important.

I actually wondered, at one point, if Obama would win. I wondered if McCain, with all his experience, his genuinely heroic backstory and his incredible life story, would beat the inexperienced Obama. I have a huge amount of respect for McCain after all he went through in the past, the details of which are well known and not needing of repeating here. But I lost a lot of respect for him when he said this:

While we were working to eliminate these pork barrel earmarks he [Senator Obama, or “that one”] voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects. Including $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?”

The “overhead projector” in question was a NEW PLANETARIUM PROJECTOR. Hardly an overhead! That comment suggested that McCain either a) genuinely didn’t realise what the planetarium projector was for, and how complicated and expensive they are, or b) he knew perfectly well what it was for and how complicated and expensive it was, but decided to mock it anyway. Either way, it was a stupid thing to say, and showed disregard for not just the amazing work planetariums and their staff do, but also for science itself. I was genuinely disappointed in McCain when he said that. ( I actually have my doubts that McCain thought that himself; I think that was probably written for him, by some smart-ass Sam Seaborne wannabe somewhere, but I guess we’ll never know now… )

So what happens next?

I think Obama is a very intelligent guy, a supporter of and believer in the value of science. I just don’t think that – like most politicians – he appreciates how important, how vital, space exploration and space science actually are. Unlike John McCain, who clearly has a problem appreciating and understanding science, Obama comes across (to me, anyway; US readers feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!) as a modern thinker who has no time for idiotic theories or beliefs, unlike some (mention no names… Sarah Palin… oops, slipped out, sorry! 😉 ). He has said he wants to tackle global warming, and accepts it is a problem of our making, so he “gets” environmentalism and global scientific problems. But his less-than-enthusiastic support for the space program during his campaign suggests that he doesn’t “get” space, or just isn’t that excited by it.

What he needs, I think, is for a group of people from the world of astronomy and space exploration to make it their mission to educate him. What he needs is for Neal deGrasse Tyson to give him a private planetarium show – actually, no, what he needs is to sit in on one of the public planetarium shows, so he can see for himself just how excited men, women and children get when they come face to face with the wonders and mysteries of the universe…

What he needs is for Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer, to take him to one of the world’s great observatories to show him a telescope in operation, then take him outside and show him the real night sky, and all its wonders, through a small, amateur telescope, to open his eyes to what’s Out There.

What he needs is for Steve Squyres – the man behind the MER missions – to take him personally around JPL and show him the men and women who are working devotedly on the many unmanned space missions scattered across the solar system. He needs to sit at a console and actually drive one of the rovers, just for a moment, to feel for himself what it means to explore another world. He needs to sit in on one of Steve’s presentations and see, on a huge JPL screen, some of the breathtaking pictures sent back by Spirit and Opportunity. he needs to put on a pair of 3D glasses and peer down into the gaping chasms of Mars as seen by HiRISE. He needs to meet Mars.

And if he needs any further convincing that Mars is the eventual, ultimate and inevitable goal for the manned space program, then he should be sat down in front of his huge-screen LCD TV and made to watch the episode “Galileo” from Season Two of THE WEST WING, so he can hear this snippet of dialogue:

Mallory : And we went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?
Sam : Because it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he needs to sit in on a class of schoolkids being talked to by a science teacher, or someone who does astronomy and space “Outreach” in schools. Then he’d see how amazed and excited by space kids are, and realise that for them space isn’t a place people go to in sci-fi films and books, it’s a potential workplace for them when they grow up.

And he needs to speak to people in NASA, the ones who know how important it is we establish a foothold on the Moon in order to one day strike out into the greater solar system, and hear from them why we need to explore space. Not because it’s a virtual batleground between the US and the Russians, or Chinese, but because it’s a frontier, a place to test not just our science and technology but ourselves, our character and our spirit, as a species. It always sounds cheesy or grand whenever I say this to people, I know, but space is our destiny, there’s no getting around that. Earth is only big enough to support a certain number of people, one day it will just groan “Enough! I can’t do this anymore!” so we have to find other places to live, Out There, and the ways to get to them, and to not just survive but thrive there. We live on a little blue and white island in a truly huge ocean, and we’re running out of food and fuel and resources here… but we can see other islands on the horizon, which could, if we reached them, provide us with more room and more resources. It really is that simple.

Obama needs to see that space exploration isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Obama needs to realise that exploration isn’t a hobby, it’s a primal drive, a force, a need, embedded in us, encoded in our DNA. Obama needs to realise that the starry sky above the West Wing isn’t a ceiling, it’s a window, through which he can see the very future of mankind. Obama needs to be able to take his beautiful young daughters out into the Rose Garden, dim all the White House’s lights, and point towards the Moon, and Mars, shining in the night sky, and tell them “If I work hard enough, when you grow up, people will be living there… and there…” and inspire them as much as he was inspired by the great leaders who came before him.

Many have compared Obama to Kennedy, for the way he inspires people. Is he a New Kennedy? Is he The One we have all been waiting for, the one who sets us on the road that leads us back to the Moon, who will send men and women to walk in the footprints left by Armstrong and Aldrin on the Sea of Tranquility? Is he the one who will make the dream of sending men and women to stride across the ancient, dusty plains of Mars a reality? In four years’ time will we sit glued to our TV screens and cluster around our radios listening to a re-elected Obama announce that he is setting an invigorated NASA the task of sending people to Mars, and returning them safely to the Earth? I don’t know. I guess we’ll all find out together.

Obama has a lot to do before he even starts to think about space – a crippled economy to help back to its feet; a divided country to unite; a ruined international reputation to repair; two wars to bring to an end. His plate is going to be full for a long time. But when the time comes for him to decide which direction to take NASA in, what to do “about space”, as one day he will have to, I hope… I dare to think, and to believe… he’ll do the right thing.


If you’re a visitor from THE CARNIVAL OF SPACE, welcome! You can get back to the Carnival by clicking here… thanks for stopping by Cumbrian Sky! 🙂

2 Responses

  1. I was actually very much against the new projector, but for very different reasons. These new digital projectors make stars that look like blobs. It is true that one can use more multimedia, but people can do that at home on their TV or computer. When I worked in a planetarium, I found that the thing that really got people was not the special effects or video clips, but the live sky shows under the crystal clear stars from a traditional projector (which also showed much more realistic variations in brightness compared to the limited dynamic range of digital projectors). I think that getting rid of the old kind of projector is often driven by the fact that people today are used to advanced multimedia at home. The problem is that if you give them the same thing they get at home, pretty soon they start staying home.

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