The View From Here: On Stranger Tides
September 2011 | Vol. 10 | No. 9
Had Scotsman Charles Darwin traveled through time, overshot the Galapagos Islands and splashed upon the shores of the Potomac in 2011, I'm not so sure the theory of evolution would have ever occurred to him.
How would Darwin have catalogued the behavior of the elected leadership of a supposedly intelligent species engaged in the existential equivalent of eating their young? Our political system has become so infected with irrational partisanship that Darwin, surely, would be searching the food chain to account for some toxin or mutation that had disrupted the natural order.
That toxin, founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have admonished Darwin, could only be that self-replicating virus known as political partisanship -- something our founding fathers loathed, but current politicians can't seem to get enough of.
"The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one party against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection." -- George Washington, 1796
"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." -- Thomas Jefferson, 1789
"But this organism," Darwin would allege incredulously, "evolved from the DNA of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution! How could it have mutated like this?"
Clearly there was no News Corp in Darwin's time.
"What, exactly, does this have to do with the exploration, development and utilization of space?" you might ask.
The country today is borne upon strange tides. The exploration, development and utilization of space has been a national imperative for five decades -- advancing science and technology, acting as an economic engine that drives the creation of new industries, enhancing all dimensions of national security, driving prosperity and perhaps most important, fundamentally enabling the United States to uniquely thrive as a nation of dreamers, doers and those who dare greatly. Visionary leadership and bipartisan support have made the engine run and the magic happen for half a century. Yet we've reached a point of such profound political dysfunction ("the last degradation of a free and moral agent?") that this grand enterprise, one of our greatest national treasures, is suffering the vicissitudes of parental neglect, if not outright abuse.
It's not my purpose here to engage in any blame laying. The duplicitous know who they are, and history is likely to account much more harshly of them than we mere mortals of the day could ever do.
The mission of the Space Foundation is to Advance space endeavors to Inspire, Enable and Propel humanity. Very simple, very powerful. While there have been, and continue to be, numerous excellent sources of inspiration -- from Mars rovers to commercial space-liners like the VSS Enterprise, hard core space innovators like SpaceX and "out there" dream machines like Almaz or Bigelow Aerospace. There is still plenty of Buck Rogers in the space community; it is national commitment to space that seems to be waning by the day.
I'm sometimes accused of being "outspoken" -- whatever that means. To me it means (A) I'm doing my job, and (B) I'm keeping good company. One of my outspoken friends, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently laid it out plainly on Real Time with Bill Maher:
"Certainly when someone says, 'We don't have enough money for this space probe,'. . . no, it's not that you don't have enough money, it's that the distribution of money that you're spending is warped in some way that you are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow.
"You remember the 60s and 70s. You didn't have to go more than a week before there's an article in Life magazine, "The Home of Tomorrow," "The City of Tomorrow," "Transportation of Tomorrow." All of that ended in the 1970s. After we stopped going to the Moon, it all ended. We stopped dreaming.
"And so I worry that the decision that Congress makes doesn't factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow. Tomorrow's gone. They're playing for the quarterly report, they're playing for the next election cycle, and that is mortgaging the actual future of this nation, and the rest of the world is going to pass us by."
While Tyson was talking specifically about NASA's manned space flight program, he could just as easily be talking about America's national security space programs. Those programs, which not only keep us secure but have also delivered some of the most important new technologies of our generation (don't suppose anyone has ever heard of that little GPS "thingie?") are also under assault. Elected and appointed officials from both parties, posturing with all the dignity of Kanye West at a music awards show, are targeting the Pentagon to pay for the disastrous effects of such political self-immolation as this April's "Mexican standoff" that very nearly shut down the government; Congress' fiddle-while-Rome-is-burning neglect of the Federal Aviation Administration; and the most recent adolescent game of high stakes political chicken played over the federal debt ceiling.
This almost constant partisanship not only impacts space policy but derails almost all other areas of work for which Congress is responsible. Mainly passing the annual appropriations bills that are needed for our government to function. Partisanship is having a paralyzing effect across the entire government and is having negative effects on global stock markets as well.
Nor does it help that military leaders duck and cover at the first political breeze. Headquarters U.S. Air Force is preparing to roll out a "back to basics" response to the cost cutting mandate -- one that, in current draft, appears to advocate a return to those halcyon days of Billy Mitchell and a silk-scarf pilot dominated service; the briefing charts (yes, I've seen them) do not even mention the critical space and cyberspace missions. No wings, I guess.
One is tempted to invoke the Edmund Burke admonition that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." However, even that time-tested axiom is ill suited, as it reduces the dialogue to the binary good-evil, us-them nonsense that is at the root of our political problems. I prefer Wayne Greeson's spin on Burke: When good men do nothing, they get nothing good done.
Which is why it is heartening to see no less an icon than Neil Armstrong becoming more and more vocal about the American space program being in chaos. Up until very recently, Armstrong had, since 1969, retained a statesman-like silence on U.S. space policy, loathe to be seen as leveraging his place in history. But, along with fellow moonwalker Gene Cernan and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, Armstrong has started speaking out.
This is what we all must do: Demonstrate for Mr. Darwin that, indeed, we have evolved a higher intelligence. Confront toxic partisanship. Demand that the proposals and decisions made by our elected and appointed officials begin to "factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow." Motivate our selves, and the public, to demand space programs that are meaningful, important and that inspire, enable and propel humanity.
I have some very strong opinions about what a meaningful space program would look like, as I'm sure do you. It would have clear goals -- national security space goals, space exploration goals, civil space utilization goals, commercial space goals, foreign trade and foreign policy goals. The program would be funded based on the goals, objectives and desired outcomes, and not on some atrophied notion that current budget lines are carved in kryptonite, never to change.
This concept of a finite, never-changing budget barrier for space is one of the most self-defeating mantras ever foisted on the American people. It is a lie, fabricated by underperformers to sustain the notion that if nothing has improved, they've still done their jobs. Not to belabor friend Tyson's quote, but he is so dead-on that it bears repeating: "it's not that you don't have enough money, it's that the distribution of money that you're spending is warped in some way that you are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow." The ill-conceived medicine of a starvation diet for space, too, is a toxin that perturbs and perverts the natural course of evolution.
To those who suggest we cannot today afford much of a space program, I say that we are in the middle of a historic socio-political nose dive, and that the only way to pull back the stick and and push the balls to the wall is with a vigorous, exciting, productive space program that inspires our people with the power of dream, enables our economy with radical new technologies and industries and propels the U.S. forward as the clear leader on the final frontier.
With all respect and admiration for my friends on both sides of the political aisle, it is time to stop acting like Democrats and Republicans, and start acting like Americans -- unique, free, fiercely independent people who, according to Winston Churchill "will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options."
The option of political partisanship is exhausted. The View from Here is that it's time to start doing the right things -- to inspire, enable and propel humanity.
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