A Note to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I applaud your plans to launch a new jobs initiative. With the recession deepening toward catastrophe, it’s badly needed. And just as were millions of other Americans who respect science, I was thrilled by the promise in your inaugural speech, “We will restore science to its rightful place. . . .” These two ideas dovetail like the wedges at the corners of an antique drawer.

NASA is fond of pointing out that spinoffs from its programs range from new types of insulation to miniature vascular-assist pumps, from advances in aeronautics to new metal alloys — even to the swimsuits worn by Olympic competitors. A counter-argument made by critics of the civilian space program, as noted in a study to be published later this year by NASA, is that if consumer demands were strong enough for product improvements, research and development dollars would be better spent on programs specifically aimed at those products.

Both side have merit. Yet it seems obvious to me that advances in computing, communications, rocketry and radar technology are among NASA’s direct contributions, while the photographs by Hubble, the landing on Titan, the rovers trundling across Mars, the moon landings, are contributions that reach a loftier level.

In the study, Eligar Sadeh of the Center for Space and Defense Studies, U.S. Air Force Academy, weighs the effects of the Apollo moon landing program. The report, which Eligar Sadeh provided to Nightly News, is titled “Impacts of the Apollo Program on NASA, the Space Community, and Society.” Its conclusions show the immense value of the effort.

“Another impact of the technological ethos are the influences on the level of public confidence in the ability of government to perform; the Apollo program, through the planning and management skills applied therein with successful results, helped to create a culture of competence engendering high levels of public confidence in the U.S. federal government,” says the study, citing an unpublished manuscript by Howard E. McCurdy and Roger D. Launius, “If We Can Go to the Moon . . .: Political Power and Public Confidence.”

Eligar Sadeh adds, “The demonstration of competence surrounding Apollo proved that the U.S. possessed the skill, technology, and wealth to complete voyages to space; it is this sense of accomplishment that Apollo and NASA symbolized.”

The report shows that science education blossomed after Sputnik challenged the American school system, but the shutting down of Apollo started a continuing decline. By some accounts, it says, “there is a major workforce crisis in the aerospace and defense industry sector.” American high school seniors and college undergraduates score below the international average in physics and math, adds the report.

It’s time to revitalize education with a new space initiative. Let’s remobilize our aerospace sector, with its hundreds of thousands of workers.

The discoveries that await any country with the drive to go after them can’t be predicted, but could be immense. What if a base built on the far side of the moon, shielded from Earth’s radio traffic, were to detect signals from an alien civilization? What if research into the implications of String Theory demonstrates that other dimensions exist? Suppose we unravel the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, which make up the vast majority of the universe? What if we achieve new insights into physics? What if we discover a planet whose atmosphere has abundant free oxygen, a sure sign of life?

These would change our perceptions for all time. Yet if such dramatic discoveries are not made in the near future, others only slightly less important will be — assuming strong investment by our government. The count of known exoplanets will continue to rise, our understanding of the mechanics of solar system evolution will improve, we’ll know more about the likelihood of life elsewhere, and we will better see our place in the universe.

Self-knowledge requires an understanding of our surroundings, and we cannot get that without exploration.

The last time my heart was filled with this much hope for the future of our country was during the Apollo program. Along with most of the rest of the world, I celebrated America’s daring advances in space. I will never forget watching my family’s old black-and-white TV that hot July night in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

A great legacy of your administration, Mr. President, one that will do much to alleviate the misery of the economic pit we are in, and which will free our spirits to soar again, would be a vigorous commitment to space exploration.

Sincerely,

Joe Bauman, Salt Lake City

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