Dennis Wingo says that we need a compelling reason for a space program, and we don’t currently have it. I agree. This is the space policy debate that we need to have, and never really have, at least not since the early post-Sputnik period. There is no way to come up with the right transportation architecture/infrastructure if we don’t understand the requirements, and we don’t really understand why we’re doing it. People persist in thinking that the VSE was a destination (the moon, then Mars), and then proceed to argue about whether or not it was the right destination. But it was, or should have been, much more than that — it was a statement that we are no longer going to be confined to low earth orbit, as we had been since 1972. But the failure was in articulating why we should move beyond LEO. Dennis has done as good a job of that here as anyone to date.
I would also note that it’s hard to generate enthusiasm for spending money, or astronauts’ lives, when we don’t know why they’re doing it. As I wrote a couple years ago:
Our national reaction to the loss of a shuttle crew, viewed by the proverbial anthropologist’s Martian (or perhaps better yet, a Vulcan), would seem irrational. After all, we risk, and lose, people in all kinds of endeavors, every day. We send soldiers out to brave IEDs and RPGs in Iraq. We watch firefighters go into burning buildings. Even in more mundane, relatively safe activities, people die — in mines, in construction, in commercial fishing. Why is it that we get so upset when we lose astronauts, who are ostensibly exploring the final frontier, arguably as dangerous a job as they come? One Internet wag has noted that, “…to judge by the fuss that gets made when a few of them die, astronauts clearly are priceless national assets — exactly the sort of people you should not be risking in an experimental-class vehicle.”
What upset people so much about the deaths in Columbia, I think, was not that they died, but that they died in such a seemingly trivial yet expensive pursuit. They weren’t exploring the universe — they were boring a multi-hundred-thousand-mile-long hole in the vacuum a couple hundred miles above the planet, with children’s science-fair experiments. We were upset because space isn’t important, and we considered the astronauts’ lives more important than the mission. If they had been exploring another hostile, alien planet, and died, we would have been saddened, but not shocked — it happens in the movies all the time. If they had been on a mission to divert an asteroid, preventing it from hitting the planet (a la the movie Armageddon, albeit with more correspondence to the reality of physics), we would have mourned, but also been inured to their loss as true national heroes in the service of their country (and planet). It would be recognized that what they were doing was of national importance, just as is the job of every soldier and Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But space remains unimportant, and it will continue to be as long as we haven’t gotten the public and polity to buy in on a compelling “why.”