Friday, July 8, 2011

The Cost of Hope

The Space Shuttle program cost a total of $196 billion dollars, about half what the financial bailout in '08-'09 cost, and almost the same as the AIG bailout alone.

What did we get out of the Shuttle? An internationally cooperative program that put astronauts from many countries into orbit, opportunities in science that have changed our view of the universe (Hubble and many others), innumerable trickle down technologies from ceramics and computer systems to communications and aerodynamics. Then there are the thousands upon thousands of high-tech, specialized jobs, many of which are unique and world class in their execution.

What did we get out of the bailout? AIG executives got their corporate bonuses, we supported and kept alive a dysfunctional deregulated financial system that is doomed to repeat what it has already done. On the non-bank side, we floated two American car makers who were building inefficient, poorly designed vehicles that failed in the marketplace; in short, we supported incompetence.

I'm watching the last flight of Atlantis now on NASA TV. I've been watching Shuttles launch since Columbia launched when I was twelve years old in 1981. I was born a month before Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, my entire life has been steeped in the mythology and imagery of space flight. I got teary then, and I'm teary now. What makes me emotional about this? Sure, it's expensive, but it's also a grand gesture, and shows what we are capable of as a species; nothing about banking or business does anything like that for me. When a Shuttle launches I see our future, not limited by greed and fossil fuels; we lift our gaze from our own navels and get a truer sense of our place in the scheme of things. This doesn't frighten me, it gives me hope; something else I've never gotten from the banking industry.

If they were trotting out Orion in the next year, I'd be happy that the Shuttle is being retired. But Orion isn't even out of the prototype stage, and is years away from flying. If our only goal is to fill the world with mediocrity and spend our genius on how to take money from each other, it never will reach the launch pad.

I fear, on a fundamental level, that Atlantis' last flight is really the death of Kennedy's dream of an America that takes bold steps, and moves the human spirit forward:

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."

Said today, it would read, "we no longer choose to do the hard thing, we choose the easy thing, the thing that serves the greedy and short sighted, and satisfies mediocrity. We choose to surrender our role as a leader in the future hopes of humanity, and let others take those risks, and shoulder those burdens. In the meantime we will spend far more money supporting our debt, keeping dead people alive at all costs and killing people in foreign countries than we ever did boldly going where no one has gone before."