One of the great ironies of our time is this: We have learned to walk on the Moon, but we haven’t yet learned to walk on the earth. It is an irony that is fast devolving into a tragedy.
Since the first man landed on the Moon in 1969, we have continued dumping greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere and making our planet less habitable.
Meantime, under the direction of the Bush administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working toward the goal of settling the moon and Mars.
If we could do both — put human beings on other planets while practicing good stewardship of Earth — all would be well. But the next missions to the moon and Mars are being prepared at the expense of life at home.
In a report Sunday, 60 Minutes gushed over the administration’s Mission to Mars. Without question, NASA is proving it still has the right stuff. Four years ago, the space agency successfully deployed two “rovers” on Mars and they’ve been sending back photos and data ever since.
One scientist compared it to shooting a basketball from New York to Los Angeles, and sinking the shot without touching the rim. Now, the plan is to put American astronauts back on the moon in preparation for a manned voyage to Mars. As 60 Minutes’ correspondent Bob Simon put it:
From the mountains of Utah to the factory floors of Cleveland, from the space center in Houston to the marshes of Virginia, spacesuits are being tested, rockets are being fired, and capsules are being designed. The United States is once again aiming to launch astronauts to the moon and, yes, even to Mars.
What Simon didn’t mention was the unconscionable trade-off the administration is making between our planet and the exploration of others. In Feb. 2006, you may recall, the Bush administration edited NASA’s mission statement to delete the phrase “understand and protect our home planet” (which James Hansen wrote about here).
In Jan. 2007, the National Research Council concluded that NASA’s earth sciences budget had declined 30 percent since 2000, eroding the agency’s satellite capabilities for Earth study.
“The network of satellites upon which the United States and the world have relied for indispensable observations of Earth from space is in jeopardy,” the National Association for the Advancement of Science warned [PDF].
One satellite designed to help scientists understand the impacts of climate change, the $100 million Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), has been stored for years in a box at the Goddard Space Flight Center. DSCOVR was grounded by Republicans in Congress because it was originally conceived by then-Vice President Al Gore. NASA canceled the DSCOVR program in 2006 even though the NRC judged it a “strong and scientifically vital and feasible mission that will contribute unique data on Earth’s climate systems.”
In its report on the Mission to Mars, 60 Minutes interviewed Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. “What’s impossible?” he asked wistfully, recalling the days of the Apollo missions. “What can’t we do if we wanna do it badly enough?”
When it comes to understanding the ecological systems that support life on Earth, the Bush administration doesn’t “wanna do it badly enough.” Perhaps Bush is doing a favor for the aerospace industry. Perhaps he hopes to leave a Kennedy-like legacy. But history is likely to judge Bush’s priorities much differently.
Restoring our exploration of the earth and its climate should be one of the first things on the agenda of the next president.