A Question of Priorities

Because of the Republican Primary being held in Florida this week, there’s been discussion about the NASA budget and the candidates support for space exploration. I got caught up in one myself.

I was reminded of the days and months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and my high school class mates discussing the rational behind collecting moon rocks when children were starving in Bangladesh and dying in Cambodia.

Well, no, they weren’t that erudite. Neither was I. But at least I (sort of, vaguely) knew that had we not spent the resources to go to the moon, the politics of Southeast Asia and the disaster that was Bangladesh would not have been changed in the slightest. Sometimes it seems a pity, but things aren’t connected in quite that way.

We, and the politicians we nominate and elect, are actually doing something right now that does affect the world around us, and that is, setting the priorities. In 1962, President Kennedy convinced the nation to make going to the moon high (very high) on the priority list. Later, in the face of the end of Vietnam, Watergate and oil crises, we lowered it. Both decisions could be (and would be) justified, and both could have gone either way without destroying the nation.

But like when I chose BetaMax over VHS, it’s easy to say others are wrong, when it’s not really a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of priorities.

Today’s priority decisions at NASA are not merely about deciding between manned and robotic space flight. The decisions to be made concern the architecture of the vehicles:

[I]n a speech Tuesday at a Space Transportation Association breakfast in Washington, Griffin gave one of the more detailed, vigorous defenses of the current architecture yet.Griffin said he decided to speak about Constellation because of “the inquiries I’ve had lately, in one form or another, concerning various aspects of our post-Shuttle spaceflight architecture.” While the architecture has changed little since it was released in September 2005, “the logic behind the choices made has receded into the background” and “new questioners lacking subject matter background appear”, thus making a review of the architecture timely.

and even their destination.

NASA’s current plan for manned space exploration focuses on establishing a base on the moon, as a vital stepping stone for a visit to Mars. The initiative has been trumpeted by the Bush administration, which wants the first mission to launch by 2020. But trouble is brewing as a growing group of former mission managers, planetary scientists and astronauts argues against any manned moon mission at all. One alternative, they say: Send astronauts to an asteroid as a better preparation for a Martian landing.

So yes, we get our say, and we even get more say than almost anybody in the history of the world. Even better, we get to say You’re Wrong very loudly on the Internet when the decision doesn’t go our way.

But just remember, we don’t really make the decisions, except collectively. What we do directly, is to help set the priorities.

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