Monday, July 5, 2010

The President's New Mission for NASA: Does This Make Any Sense?

With the Space Shuttle well on its way to retirement (slated for this year), NASA and its contractors have been hard at work on the Constellation Program. The highlight of the program was intended to be a return to the Moon in 2020. However, the Obama Administration has declared that Constellation is "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation" and has effectively canceled the program with the 2011 budget. First, I have to question how much a so-called community organizer knows about spacecraft development. Second, with the Space Shuttle retired and the Constellation Program scrapped, America will be left without a homegrown system for putting astronauts into space. This leaves us dependent on countries such as Russia to put Americans into orbit until a Shuttle replacement enters service, which will take years. Any American should find this situation embarrassing.

The cancellation of the Constellation Program, along with statements made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a recent interview on Al Jazeera Television, makes me wonder if the President understands or even cares about NASA's mission. Bolden said that:
When I became the NASA administrator - or before I became the NASA administrator - [President Obama] charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science ... and math and engineering.
Inspiring children to go into science and math is fine, although I doubt leaving astronauts grounded by canceling the Space Shuttle's replacement is the way to do it. Bolden's second charge, to expand international relationships, makes no sense unless it's specifically to advance NASA's express goals. Otherwise, this is a task for the State Department. It's the third charge, the "foremost" one, that really irritates me. The foremost charge given to the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is to "reach out the the Muslim world" and "help them feel good about their historic contribution"? What kind of nonsense is this?

First of all, the purpose of NASA is to perform aeronautical and space research. It's part of their name, for heaven's sake. Second of all, NASA is populated by scientists and engineers, not diplomats. Being an engineer myself, I can assure you that all they care about is putting people and equipment into space and gathering data. Making any particular culture feel good about itself isn't part of the job description and is a distraction from real work. In fact, knowing the typical engineer's mindset, "Operation: Make [insert culture here] Feel Good" would be met with extreme cynicism and would add politically-correct insult to the injury of canceling the Constellation Program.

Third of all, although many scientific advances and inventions can be credited to the Muslim world, the majority date back to the Islamic Golden Age between the 8th and 13th centuries A.D. Most of the science and technology behind aeronautics and space flight date to Isaac Newton (the 17th century) or later and are primarily the result of European (especially German) and American advances. Obama's charge to Bolden reeks of typical Liberal condescension; i.e., exaggerating or overemphasizing the contributions of certain minorities or cultures to boost their self-esteem and/or curry their favor for political reasons (this has become fairly common in education). It also reflects a Liberal tendency to lump people into groups or categories rather than consider them as individuals. The accomplishments of one's ancestors or members of one's group (e.g., race, culture, gender, nationality) mean absolutely nothing about an individual's own accomplishments. My English ancestors may have made all sorts of contributions to history throughout the centuries; it doesn't follow that I have accomplished any great deed or that I'm even capable of such a thing. Conversely, perhaps my ancestors committed horrible atrocities. Does that mean that I should hang my head in shame and declare my own worthlessness? This mindset (that people should be treated as groups rather than individuals) is best exemplified by the proposal that the descendants of slaves receive some form of compensation.

I am thoroughly tired with the Administration's drive to politicize everything (the housing crisis, health care, the BP spill, etc.). Now, with Bolden's revelation and Obama's recent cancellation of the Constellation Program, it is apparent that the President believes that NASA's proper mission is to serve as a political tool rather than as a scientific and technological organization with the specific mission of exploring the fields of aeronautics and astronautics.

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