A cover story for the Weekly Standard, entitled “Obama’s Asteroid,” published in the June 10, 2013 issue, demonstrates both a growing disquiet and a continuing confusion surrounding America’s space program. The article was written by P.J. O’Rourke, better known for his political humor and social commentary, based on a recent Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
O’Rourke gets a number of things right. He makes the following points.
NASA and the space program are not only kind of cool but important to the United States.
The space program has derived a great deal of economic benefit. O’Rourke mentions GPS satellites, weather prediction, and Google Earth in particular.
President Obama has driven the space program to its very nadir. He artfully quotes some snark at the recent space conference about the president’s scheme to snag an asteroid and visit it with astronauts. “To boldly go where no man has ever shown much interest in going.”
O’Rourke’s confusion, shared by a great deal of the media and politicians, derives over why we have a space program. He claimed that John F. Kennedy, when announcing the man to the moon and back by the end of the decade effort, did not actually say why America should do such a thing.
In fact, according to John Logsdon’s seminal work on the Kennedy moon decision, “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon,” Kennedy saw the moon race as a means to establish American leadership in space in the context of the then raging Cold War with the Soviet Union. It was a means, through soft power, to establish the superiority of freedom and capitalism over Soviet style communism. It succeeded brilliantly. The scientific knowledge and the economic benefit thus won were added benefits. It suggests at least a line that could be used to market a space effort in modern times, though the players in space exploration now include countries such as China and India as well as Russia.
Still, O’Rourke obliquely makes a point that many space advocates have wrestled with for years. How does one sell a space effort that will justify in the minds of people the resources that need to be spent on it. When former Speaker Newt Gingrich famously proposed building a moon base by 2020 during the 2012, he neglected to set out the reasons why. The idea was howled down with ridicule by Gingrich’s main Republican rival, Mitt Romney, who went on to win the GOP nomination but lose the general election.
Still, O’Rourke seems to be sold on having a space program simply for the coolness factor, especially when compared to the venality of politics. He concludes his piece by saying, “let’s send our children to the planets and the stars. And let’s keep them out of Congress and the White House. “