While I agree with what the author of the following linked article says in spirit, I see his criticism of NASA’s “whining” as part of a larger frustration on the part of those who understand how different the realities of space science actually are from fiction, more than a cop-out on behalf of the agency itself.

The real problem is not in NASA’s inability to keep up with the expectations of the population, but in the general population’s lack of patience with actual progress.  Space science IS hard, and when talking about the science of space flight, travel, and exploration, the difficulties become even more pronounced.

EnterpriseWhile science fiction often seems to be the major driving force behind the public’s perception of space exploration it is too often held as the benchmark for achievement.  The general public has very little idea of how fantastical the notion is of landing humans on Mars.  It isn’t impossible, or improbable, but it is exceedingly difficult, especially given the current state of public interest in the matter.  It is little more than an over-the-shoulder chuckle; “yeah, getting to Mars would be cool…hey, did you see last night’s episode of Storage Wars?”  On one hand people expect NASA to be cranking out star ships, and on the other they complain about how much of a tax dollar sponge it is when in actuality it comprises literally a fraction of the country’s overall budget.

The problem is that SciFi makes space travel seem like nothing at all, but when you explain to someone that even at the speed of light the next closest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, is nearly four and a half light years away, and having gone there and back almost nine years would have passed on Earth, the dreaded cross-eyed look of incomprehension completely erases any enthusiasm they might have had.   

During America’s pursuit of landing a man on the moon the fervor over space exploration was at its highest.  Nowadays that yearning for knowing what’s out there has waned considerably.  Could it be that as we’ve become so overly desensitized to modern science fiction—it’s offerings so realistic, and seemingly so obvious—that we’ve grown frustrated at the apparent lack of progress?  It seems only cosmophiles get excited over things such as the Hubble Deep Field, or the latest discovery of more exoplanets.  With our understanding of the cosmos being so much more than ever before, and with our increase in knowledge expanding exponentially every day, how is it that nobody seems to care?

picardI believe it is because intellectual progress is not respected or coveted nearly as much as physical progress.  When we landed on the moon (for those of us who realize that yes, we actually did land on the moon) there was a physical step taken into the unknown, but since then we’ve stayed so close to Earth that even the fact that we have a space station orbiting our planet with people living on it seems not to excite anyone but space dorks.  Apparently being able to see galaxies that existed billions of years ago isn’t as interesting as the prospect of seeing little green men…

If we hold NASA to the standard of the imaginations of science fiction writers than we will always be disappointed.  That isn’t to say NASA should move along silently, making astonishing discoveries, and planning amazing human accomplishments without the same fanfare as a blockbuster SciFi movie.  Perhaps a re-branding of space exploration is in order, where more reasonable goals are appreciated and even the smallest discovery heralded as amazing.

My fear is that all this apathy towards space science is part of the larger force of anti-intellectualism sweeping the country.  People simply have very little understanding of space at all.  Schools don’t have the time or desire to stress all the amazing things we know about the universe.  And when Creationism is being taught alongside actual science how can we expect students to even know what discoveries truly are amazing at all?

carl-sagan (1)Something needs to be done to bring the wonder and awe of space back to the masses, and it doesn’t help when NASA whines about how hard it is to travel to the stars.  Is it hard?  Yes, but maybe they should try explaining to people why it’s hard rather than admonishing the hopes and dreams of the few remaining people who even bother to care at all.

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