OT: Re: In defense of NASA

From: Mark Tapley <mtapley_at_swri.edu>
Date: Fri Jun 9 10:14:00 2000

R. D. et al,

(* Disclaimer: I'm full time on a NASA project, the IMAGE mission, though
my direct employer is Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas,
who does a lot of commercial space work as well as NASA. My views are mine
alone, however, and do not represent company policy nor that of NASA. *)

... so you know which side my bread's buttered on, and by the way if you
are a taxpayer, I thank you very much for your support and hope you feel
that you get your money's worth out of IMAGE
(http://pluto.space.swri.edu/IMAGE/) (you can see data on some of the links
referenced there). I've worked hard to make it so.

> Has the space program had any positive influence on
>spirituality and humanity's relationship with Nature?

        Remember the photo of the Earth, taken by the returning Apollo
mission? Or Earthrise over the moon? That's a perspective that could never
have been achieved without manned spaceflight. (I say manned, because no
machine would have been programmed to look in the right direction at the
right time, and notice the incredible aesthetic impact of that image, and
capture it.) Its value is of course subjective - but there's a generation
grown now that *knows*, because they've seen it, that Earth is just a big
blue marble and not the entire universe. For better or worse, it's a finite
        Is the ozone hole a big deal? Maybe, maybe not; but we would never
have known about it - because we would never have noticed it - without the
*global* data that could only be provided by satellite observations. What
about global warming? We might have picked that up in 10 or 15 years from
temperature measurements at land stations, or maybe not. In any case, it
would have taken more years for global climate modelers to convince
everyone else that the land data they had, plus limited sea-surface
measurements from ships, really did amount to a significant change. Global
sea-surface temperature measurements, collected by satellites, provided
that insight to us about a quarter of a century earlier than we would
otherwise have had it. Same notation for El Nino. Whether we take advantage
of the data we have, and do smart things with it, is an open question, but
we would not even have the options, in those cases, without spaceflight.
There are similar arguments for land-use patterns, deforestation, pollution
(airborne and water-borne) plumes, etc etc etc. Not that the data *could*
not be collected without spacecraft - but that it would have been a lot
harder and more expensive and in most cases *would* not have been done. We
know our terrestrial problems better because of space activities.
        Communications satellites carry WWF, so maybe I shouldn't bring
those up, .... oh heck yes I should. Living in North America, I can watch
NHK news live broadcasts from Japan (for example). Is that a cultural
benefit? You bet. I can see, and hear (and heck, maybe one day even
understand) what's being thought and done about problems I don't even have
(earthquakes? volcanoes? not in Texas), half a big blue marble away.
Cultures I would never know existed are as close as a twist of a knob.
Sure, some of that could be done with undersea lines - but not as soon and
not as cheaply as with a satellite link.
        As for the Columbus argument ... I'm always nervous about that one.
For me as a born Texan, descended of Germand and English settlers, heck
yeah it was great that Isabella hocked her jewelry to pay for that
expedition. As a Spaniard, I'd probably be a bit less enthusiastic; I mean
looking at Spain now, it didn't do them much good in the long term. As a
native American, I'd be pretty bummed about it - why didn't the silly
Europeans stay over there and pave Europe? Depends on your perspective.
        But what I do think Spain bought for Columbus' trip, and was cheap
at the price, and what I think NASA has bought for us and was *incredibly*
cheap at the price, is potential. We know we *can* build solar power
satellites and beam microwave energy to Earth to supply electricity for our
classic computers :-) without contributing (as much) to global warming. We
know we can put long-term facilities in low Earth orbit for medical reasons
or biomedical research or crystallography or whatever. We know we can put
people on the Moon and bring them home intact. We know we can go to Mars
and colonize it, if we choose to. Those options are expensive, and some of
them may not be worth it - it's a choice we have to make. But the fact that
we *have* the choice is worth a lot to us as a nation, or as a species.
                                                                - Mark
Received on Fri Jun 09 2000 - 10:14:00 BST

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