Friday, March 03, 2006

Bush's Science Policy is Schizophrenic

Last week NASA was forced to cut a planned robotic space mission. The spacecraft, named Dawn, was set to orbit two asteroids. It was a purely scientific mission, and one of several science missions that have been cancelled over the past few months.

Also last week, House Republicans touted a series of policy proposals that are supposed to enhance America’s competitiveness in technology. The U.S. still leads the world in technological progress, but that lead has been slipping in recent years.

The Bush administration’s science policy seems to be in a state of schizophrenia. On the one hand, Bush goes on national television during his State of the Union address and promotes technology and manned space missions. At the same time, NASA’s science missions are being cut or scaled back while Bush censors his top science advisors when the results of their science run contrary to the administration’s party-line conservative agenda.

And while the president is touting a policy encouraging the advancement of technology, he is making statements to the press in support of including the pseudoscience of intelligent design in the science classroom.

As for America’s space program, it seems to be in the early stages of a reversal. Back in the 1960s and early ‘70s, NASA’s missions were almost exclusively manned. Sending humans to explore space is extremely costly and dangerous. But, because of the Space Race with the Soviets, robotic missions to the moon were just not high-profile enough. Humans had to go up.

We learned a lot in those days. A huge number of modern consumer goods and services have come into being as a direct or indirect result of the manned space program of the 1960s.

Robotic missions are much cheaper and entirely safe. They can teach us a great deal about whatever they were designed to measure. But there are far fewer spin-offs that directly benefit society.

There was a great amount of sadness among many of the NASA scientists who made the early manned space program possible when Pres. Nixon decided to cut NASA’s budget, which effectively brought to an end to manned missions to the moon. Even orbital missions were all but halted.

In place of the manned missions, NASA turned its attention, and smaller budget, to unmanned scientific missions. The Viking missions to Mars and Voyager missions to the outer Solar System were spectacular successes. These missions led to great discoveries that excited not only the planetary scientists involved, but the general public as well.

In 1981, humans went back into space in the Space Shuttle, but the missions were all in close Earth orbit and were nowhere near as spectacular as the earlier moon missions. Basically, the Space Shuttle was a truck with earth orbit as its highway.

There were some infamous failures along the way, too. Two shuttle missions resulted in disastrous loss of life. And some robotic missions to the planets ended in failure as well.

Lately, however, the unmanned missions have been successes that resulted in increased scientific knowledge of Mars, comets, and asteroids.

So, as the pendulum swings back the other way, toward manned scientific missions, it is with a similar sort of melancholy that permeated through NASA when its early manned missions were cut.

If Bush’s initiative is successful, it will mean that the space program will get more expensive, and at the same time, more impressive. Sending men and women to the moon, and ultimately to Mars and other planets, will get the space program back on the track it should never have left in 1974.

The sad part is that it is at the expense of losing valuable unmanned science missions. These missions cost so little it’s a pity we can’t afford to keep them even as we ramp up the manned space program again.

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