Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Space Shuttle: Inspiration or Distraction?

The news sites are devoting quite a bit of space to this Friday’s final launch of the Shuttle. Perhaps the best discussion I’ve seen is Dennis Overbye’s essay in the New York Times.

The Salt Lake Tribune, understandably, is covering the story from more of a local perspective, emphasizing the Utah jobs and educational opportunities that have depended on the Shuttle over the years.

One of the quotes in the Tribune, though, was over the top. A Utah State University student, whose research has been tied to the shuttle program, said the following:
“Without having a space shuttle or have something that America can send Americans up in, we don’t have anything that can inspire the next generation. I’ve been watching a lot about the Apollo program, and it was awesome that we could build that and then the space shuttle. But now, we have nothing.”
Upon reading this, I left a comment suggesting that this student become just a tad more open-minded about what he considers inspiring. And as an example, I picked NASA’s most important scientific mission: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Most Americans have never heard of the JWST, because no humans will be flying on the rocket that launches it. But it will be an immensely powerful instrument, probing the early stages of the formation of planets and galaxies, peering billions of years back in time. Anyone who can think for even ten seconds should find that far more inspiring than a publicly funded billion-dollar amusement park ride, only a couple hundred miles above earth’s surface, repeated 135 times.

Then, a few hours later, I saw something on Cosmic Variance about the JWST now being in jeopardy. I won’t try to defend the cost overruns and mismanagement, which are rightly being compared to the SSC. But if JWST gets canceled it will be a genuine tragedy for this generation and the next.

I’ll be watching to see if the Utah newspapers even cover the story.