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Of showbiz and space science

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpgA British professor of astronomy, interviewed on TV about Elon Musk’s recent rocket stunt, suggested we ask ourselves “What is space for?”.  It may sound crass and stupid put like that, but it’s a good question.  The mantra “Why go to space with so many unsolved problems here on Earth?” has dogged space explorers since the beginning.

Mr Musk’s roadster - ‘Don’t Panic!’ on the dashboard, Hitchiker’s Guide in the glovebox and David Bowie blaring - is now a man-made Near Earth Asteroid, destined one day to crash into the sun, Venus, or us – the latter chance estimated at 6% over the next  million years.  (Don’t panic – it will burn up.  We’ll probably be extinct anyway.)  For a real-life Tony Stark, space is for profit.

Sci-fi has two visions of space explorers.  Either they are quasi-official emissaries of united humanity, simultaneously spreading and seeking enlightenment (Star Trek) or wage slaves of dodgy corporations grubbing after profit (Alien).  But I am more interested in a different polarity – ‘space for science’ vs ‘space for showbiz/politics’ – the latter having now effectively fused, in the USA at least.

Sending men to the moon, (a one-horse race which only America was in), was motivated by politics/showbiz.  True, we learned a lot about the Earth by sampling the moon; but meanwhile the ‘space race’ was won by Russia.  Russia’s programme benefited from similar political motives but - given the nature of Soviet government - was hardly vulnerable to public opinion.  Russians did all the necessary, technical stuff concerned with living in space and observing the Earth.  The International Space Station (ISS) depends crucially on Russian science, somewhat grudgingly handed over in the later cost-saving spirit of international cooperation.

The currently rudderless US space agency NASA is now learning what President Trump wants – chiefly, a new moon programme (announced in the presence of first and last astronaut-geologist Harrison Schmitt Hon FGS).  But now we learn there will be no extra money – which means cutting science, education and outreach, much of which is concerned with Earth observation.  He wishes to pull out of ISS, too.  Earth sciences will be cut by 6.5%, and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) missions will be scrapped.  That such science is essential to understanding and raising awareness of climate change provides a clue to POTUS’s cynical motivations. 

Hope, meanwhile, rests with Congress, which has final say.  But do they know any better what space ‘for’?

DR TED NIELD NUJ FGS, EDITOR, @TedNield @geoscientistmag