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Thursday, January 15, 2004

New Hope For Space Flight

Yesterday, President Bush outlined a new proposal for NASA's future, complete with an increase of funding: one billion dollars over five years. The overarching vision of the recent climate among NASA officials and the administration is to take a manned mission to Mars. The current Mars mission, which features the newest generation in Martian rovers, is generating a lot of press no doubt fueled by the administration's plans to expand our extra-terrestrial reach.

The proposed schedule is to develop a new spacecraft and have people on the moon again between 2015 and 2020. The new spacecraft will presumably be much improved over the old space shuttle models, which are fairly outdated.

This plan has met much controversy. With an election quickly approaching and a looming deficit, many are asking why there should be this focus on such a seemingly impractical investment of the nation's tax dollars. After all, we should be focusing on balancing the budget and improving our domestic social programs, helping the poor and the lower class. We should be at the very least investing in the stability of Iraq so the US presence can be significantly reduced. And many find the plan to be a cheap trick of smoke and mirrors to hide insufficiencies in domestic issues in order to gain support before the election.

But this is simply a matter of perspective. Every special interest lobbying group is grappling to procure some of our precious resources. There are so many directions we could go, as the strongest and wealthiest nation on Earth. We aren't limited to subsistence and survival. We offer our services out of charity to many nations and NGO's, both deserving and undeserving. We do both bad and good, noble and reckless acts. The questions you must ask yourself in considering the prudence and value of the space proposal: Do you care if we go into space? Are you willing to sacrifice for our dream of colonizing Mars that lies in the distance? Is the current plan going to be effective to help get us there?

To me, I think the colonization of Mars is quite inevitable. And I would rather have it come sooner than later. As a lover of technology and an academic, I have a natural bias towards supporting the sort of plan that has been proposed. Some say it won't be enough. They say that the schedule won't hold with the amount of money being proposed for the project. Maybe it won't. This should be scrutinized by all parties, and not rejected off-handedly by the opposition just because it was proposed by a Republican. Apart from the technological advances that will benefit society as a whole, just the principle of exploration of the new frontier is enough to merit a good and solid plan to push us forward.

But behind the president's plan is a darker side. There is another space race that has begun. The Chinese have recently put a man in space, independently of the US or Russia. The US was the most recent country to launch its first manned spacecraft, all those years ago. The Chinese are ambitious and while they are still behind the US in its space-faring abilities, they could quickly catch up. This is the reason underlying all the hype, I think.

China seems to me a somewhat dangerous rival. While there is a strained diplomacy between our two nations, we only extend this because we cannot afford to have China as an enemy. With North Korea already hostile and threatening its neighbors with a potential nuclear arsenal, China is essential to keep some control over the Far East. If given our druthers, the US would harshly condemn and sanction China for its humanitarian crimes against its own citizens. But since China is in the position of power in the Far East, we find it necessary to at least keep China in a neutral position, as they seem to be acting in the North Korean negotiations.

I'm not very sure of the ramifications that would come with a China that has matched our space-faring abilities, but if there are great enough risks to merit an expansion to our own space program, I will support it. For now, we should carefully weigh the issues that confront our nation. We should not forget to dream of reaching further than we've ever gone before. After all, this dream made our country the greatest in all the world.

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