Forty years ago today, two guys named Neil and Buzz walked on the moon.
Buzz Aldrin, the lunar lander pilot on Apollo 11, writes today in the Post about a proposal for a mission to Mars. Just the concept of it makes the science geek in me giddy.
On a serious note, though - NASA is one of the frequent bugbears of fiscal conservatives and liberals alike. Neither like the money that gets spent on seemingly unimportant things like space exploration - conservatives would rather not see the government involved in this type of thing, while liberals would rather see the money be spent on health care or what have you.
But let's put this into perspective here. NASA, and indeed all science funding, is a really small part of our federal budget. I, personally, think it's worth it to make every effort to understand our universe, even if the applications of that research aren't readily understandable. And while some aspects of scientific exploration and discovery - like a mission to Mars - might seem of questionable utility now, it likely won't in the future. I can imagine someone fifty years ago, when faced with the idea of a program to launch a bunch of stuff into space and have it orbit the earth, calling that program a waste of time. Of course, nowadays, no one would say that now. At least not anyone with DirecTV, anyway.
"Fine," you say, "but let's leave all this up to private enterprise. Is this really the government's role?" But could anyone fund these grand programs of scientific discovery better than the federal government? Corporations are good for funding some research, but only research that can reach profitable applications in the very near future. They have shareholders, for cripe's sake, and these shareholders want a significant return sometime soon, thank you very much. Corporations simply aren't cut out to fund the big, giant leaps in technology.
And it ends up working out for corporate enterprise in the end, too. There's no way corporations could have funded the space missions of the '60s and '70s, but satellite technology has become a large part of our economy. There wasn't a lot of visible benefit in developing biotechnology twenty years ago - now, it's one of the best business tickets out there. Ditto with computers at their beginnings, though corporate America got on that bandwagon rather quickly. The point is that we shouldn't bristle at government spending money on seemingly esoteric scientific research that corporate interests won't or can't pursue. It'll probably come in handy someday.