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.


  1. Coverage of the Shuttle in the Utah news media continues. Here's a fascinating story, originally from the Oakland Tribune, about various peoples' attitudes toward the human space flight program.

    Without discounting what the Apollo program did for us culturally, my dim recollection is that even in 1969, most Americans were more interested in the Vietnam War or the new president or their favorite sports team or Woodstock.

    The urge to go back and relive the Apollo era, by sending humans to Mars, strikes me as nostalgic. It wouldn't be the same, for a whole bunch of reasons: The mission would take years rather than days, testing the public's patience; yet most of the public wouldn't understand what a tremendous technological achievement it would be, since they have no idea how much farther Mars is than the moon; nor would people understand the purpose, since we've already explored Mars so thoroughly with robots. Given these barriers, and the cost and the risk, I just don't see it happening.

    My colleague John Armstrong has suggested that we develop a human mission to L2, a point in space about four times as far as the moon where the JWST and other space telescopes are being placed. That would serve as a "milestone" and might just be feasible within a realistic time frame and budget. More importantly, it would draw the public's attention to the telescopes themselves, which are making actual scientific discoveries (and which otherwise might fall under the budget cutting axe). Would the public (and Congress) see through the ruse, recognizing that you can put the telescopes there much more cheaply without bringing humans along? I don't know.

  2. When I wrote this article a year ago, I assumed (from the lack of coverage in local newspapers) that the JWST had little or no connection to Utah contractors. But I was wrong, as the Salt Lake Tribune now reports. Although I wish people would take more interest in science for its own sake, let's hope this article, and others like it, will help raise awareness about this mission.


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