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A Waste of Space: Inspired Leadership and the Struggle for the Next Great Frontier

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Why bother with space travel? As America's terrestrial problems escalate (e.g., budget deficits, financial crisis, war on terror, healthcare, etc.), critics have charged that space flight is little more than a futile and expensive hobby. After all, what hope is there that NASA programs will ever resolve practical problems such as winning the war on terror, reversing global warming, reducing the spread of AIDS, or eliminating global hunger? Indeed, space flight is so atmospherically insulated from the real world that NASA programs often appear to be little more than distractions; diverting scarce resources from a plethora of intractable social issues and blasting them into the boundless void of space. In short, what possible benefit can earthlings hope to derive from the billions of dollars that are required to keep space programs afloat?

Back in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy wrestled with a similar set of problems. During Kennedy's brief term of office, the US faced a daunting range of domestic and international challenges. Hostilities were escalating in Southeast Asia. The Cuban Missile Crisis thrust the world to the very brink of nuclear Armageddon and, beginning with Sputnik, the Soviets managed to score a seemingly endless series of ideological and technological victories in outer space. With artificial satellites whizzing overhead, dominoes tumbling in the developing world, and swords rattling in Cuba, the US appeared to be woefully outflanked by its adversaries. However, instead of buckling under the weight of those combined difficulties, JFK stunned the world by announcing that, rather than donning the label of international has-been, the US would reassert its claim to international dominance by pursuing a goal beyond any other nation's wildest dreams. The US would outdistance its rivals by aiming higher: the US would shoot for the moon.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of JFK's announcement was that, as of May 25, 1961, the prospect of landing humans on the moon was pure science fiction. Quite literally, as of 1961, the technology did not exist (not even conceptually!) to achieve Kennedy's far-fetched goal. Indeed, as recently as May 5, 1961, NASA had barely managed to launch Alan Shepherd a few miles above the earth's surface. By comparison, the moon remained light years distant as a realistic space objective. Still, impossible as it may have seemed, Kennedy had thrown down the gauntlet. As a visionary leader, Kennedy had decided that, no matter what obstacles might lie in the way, the best chance of building a brighter future for the US was to lift the nation's eyes, hearts, and minds toward the moon. The choice was ours. Americans could wallow in the muck and mire of self-doubt, or we could take flight with the dreams of a courageous leader.

Fortunately, we made the right choice. The nation bent its will toward the realization of an impossible task and, through sheer force of will, made JFK's dream a reality. In doing so, we also transformed the very soul of the nation. The US won the space race and, as a result, our Soviet adversaries gradually self-destructed in a fruitless endeavor to keep pace with America's indisputable technological superiority. What's more, the intense technological thrust that propelled US astronauts to the moon also had the unintended, but very fortunate side-effect of building the cultural foundation for the post-industrial society. America's leadership of the Information Society is a direct consequence of its struggle to achieve JFK's dream. Thanks to JFK, we shot for the moon and became a better nation in the process.

So, why bother with space travel? Because, quite simply, the stars light the way to a brighter future. Space travel served as the path to Kennedy's New Frontier in the 1960s. If the US remains committed to accomplishing ever greater feats in the future, then we should look to the stars to light our way. Thus, space travel is not a distraction. Space travel represents the path to America's next Great Frontier.

As we have seen before, the US is beset by social problems of staggering proportions. Over the past year, the US has spent trillions to bail out banks, insurers, automobile companies and a myriad of other failing businesses. While I won't dispute the necessity of those bailouts, I think it is crucial to emphasize that we should not allow the trillions that have been flushed away on our failures to prevent us from making the necessary investments in our successes. What does it say about our national priorities when we provide bonuses to bankrupt bankers, but we won't finance the future of lunar and Mars missions? What does it say about our national goals and aspirations -- not to mention our national pride -- when, after shouldering the astronomical task of building the International Space Station, we announce plans to de-orbit the Station in 2016 due to revised budgetary priorities?

Revised budgetary priorities? Since when is it more important to invest in failure than success? The United States did not win the space race, or the Cold War, nor did it become the leader of the Information Society by investing in failure. Just because we have been forced to devote unheard of sums to bail out the incompetent gamblers on Wall Street does not mean that the United States should redefine itself as a nation of losers. Starting right now, we need to treat the 2008 financial meltdown as the egregious aberration that it was. The best way to accomplish that is to discipline all of the nincompoops who brought it about. Jail time for criminally-incompetent investment managers is a good place to start. While that's going on, we need to reaffirm our national commitment to success: we need to reset our sights on the stars.

History has shown that America has got all the brains, wherewithal and fortitude that it takes to do the impossible. We can build a brighter future for ourselves and for the world. All we need is a president who is prepared to lead the charge to the Next Great Frontier.

 

http://goodscience.sociology.org/

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University -- Pueblo. Tim's primary research interests are in the areas of science, technology, society (STS) and the future and Tim blogs about those topics at the following sites: The (more...)
 
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