Emily Bazelon isn’t aware of the depth of the irony of her piece at Slate, that describes her apathy to space (which she defines as “astronomy”):
The other night, my boys curled up on the couch with my husband and went to the moon. They were enthralled by a grainy video of Neil Armstrong’s 1969 shaky descent onto the pitted lunar sand. “Mom, the Eagle has landed!” they shouted in unison. “Come watch!” I was in the kitchen, reading Elizabeth Weil’s New York Times Magazine story on the perils of trying to improve a companionate marriage.
She and Liz Weil are soulmates. Liz spent many months hanging around Rotary Rocket in the late 1990s (I had dinner with her once in Tehachapi), doing research for a book that was roundly panned by everyone actually involved. For instance, see Tom Brosz’ review. It was quite clear that she had little interest in space herself, but was treating the thing as more of an anthropological expedition — a Diane Fosse “space engineers in the mist” sort of deal. Emily goes on:
I sat down, put the magazine aside, and tried to care about the moon, the planets, the stars, the galaxy. I concentrated on the astronauts and Sputnik and the race with the Soviet Union from JFK to Nixon. But I was interrupted by a stingy voice in my head: Just think what we could do on this planet with all the time and energy we spend trying to reach other ones. I know, I know: It’s anti-science, anti-American, anti-imagination. But I am incorrigibly, constitutionally earthbound. I have never willingly studied a single page of astronomy. My knowledge of the planets begins and ends with My Very Elderly Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Pillows (except, no more P, as Simon has informed me). I relish stories about NASA boondoggles for confirming my suspicion that the agency is a budget sinkhole.
Well, the agency (at least the human spaceflight part of it) is largely a budget sinkhole. We certainly don’t get value commensurate with the costs. It doesn’t have to be, but because most people are, like Emily, not that interested in space, at least as done by NASA, politicians are free to do whatever they want with its budget, so much of it ends up being simple pork. That’s just Public Choice 101. If Emily and others actually cared, perhaps NASA might have to do more useful things with the money.
But her ignorance extends far beyond simple astronomy. For someone who seems to revel in the fact that NASA wastes its money, like much of the public, she is profoundly unaware of how much (or relatively, little) money it actually is:
Simon has been asking for a periscope. He also says that when he grows up, he’s going to be an astronomer and an astronaut. I mentioned biologist as an alternative a few times. But then I stopped. Now I tell him that I can’t wait for him to teach me all about the solar system. Maybe he’ll be a rebel astronomer, and someday reform NASA, or call for an end to manned space missions so that the money can be used to fix Social Security? A mother can dream.
If she thinks that ending human spaceflight would be more than spitting in a hurricane with regard to the Social Security budget, she is innumerate beyond belief. You could either double, or zero, the NASA budget, and either way it would barely be a rounding error in SS, or the rest of the federal budget in general. I wish that more people thought that space was important, and that it was about more than astronomy. I also wish that people would think and care more about how, not whether NASA was spending the money. But as long as they’re so ignorant as to think that NASA, wasteful or not, has anything to do with the deficit, or the failure to solve intractable social problems (we saw an excellent example of this during the presidential campaign, when candidate Obama’s first space policy was written by an education staffer who thought that we could use the NASA budget for more education funding), we’re unlikely to get better space policy, or policy in general.