The Washington Post

Beam me down, Scotty

I like writing about space because everybody disagrees with me. I sound like a luddite and a miserly, passionless utilitarian one at that, and I’d happily agree to being all those things if they were true, but actually I am frequently enchanted by technology and am a veritable Peter Pan of adventure romance at heart. It just so happens I’ve looked at the space project without blinders, and people don’t want, and I mean REALLY REALY don’t want to face a very disillusioning reality.

Joel Achenbach wrote a fascinating story about the Space Station in Sunday’s Washington Post. It was a reasonably sympathetic history, and the web version had some great photos that the paper version lacked.

He outlined some of the problems the station has faced, as well as the whole space program in general, but he was too kind about it all nonetheless. I’m volunteering here to highlight the fatal problems for you, but again, I concede in advance that I will fail to persuade you. The core of my argument is NOT cost, though the coat is considerable, and worth thinking about. $100,000,000,000 for the station so far, and ticking at $3,000,000,000 more every year. Eventually real money, as they say. Could you use a little of that money in YOUR community? Or to research that disease that will eventually get you? A fusion reactor, anyone? But it’s not the cost I object to, per se, it’s the flawed thinking that underlies the program that is the problem. That flawed thinking is two-fold.

First. “Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier,” an astronaut is quoted as saying. That is an understatement. Space is an unfathomably, uniformly lethal environment for people. But even the word environment is too kind. It’s just frozen irradiated hell out there. You can create a bubble to survive in for a while if you want to badly enough, but it’s a losing proposition, long term.

Second. The Mission. It’s undefined, and there is a reason for that. We’ve never been able to decide what exactly the space station represents, a lab or one of a series of “stepping stones” to Mars and beyond. The reason it’s undefined is there IS NO MISSION THAT MAKES SENSE. If there were we’d be on it by now. If Jupiter was a Garden of Eden, then it would make sense. But after Mars, which is nearly as barren a destination as the Moon, the only thing you’ll find for habitation purposes is more death zone and after Pluto all you’ve got is Too Freaking Far.

We’ve spent our entire life as a nation celebrating The Frontier. We can’t come to terms with the fact that while space is, well, more space, it is of an absolutely, irretrievably different kind.

Tom Toles is the editorial cartoonist for The Post and writes the Tom Toles blog. See all of his cartoons here.


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