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NASA's Budget: OK To Keep Grounded

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According to A Martian Wouldn't Say That, Leonard Stern and Diane Robinson's 1994 compilation of TV industry absurdities, a CBS executive scribbled this in the margins of a script submitted for a 60s sitcom My Favorite Martian: "Please change the dialog on page 14. A Martian wouldn't say that."

President Obama's 2011 budget cuts deeply into space exploration. And like the network suit quoted above, almost everyone has an opinion.

On one hand, the President's budget proposes cancellation of the Constellation man-to-the-moon program, so we'll have to wait a bit longer to find out what a real creature from outer space would or would not say. On the other hand, it funds plenty of other space research -- NASA gets $19 billion in 2011, compared to $18.3 billion this year -- and encourages the private sector to help send astronauts back into outer space.

While some critics welcome the change, arguing that we've got domestic needs -- from potholes to the resuscitation of free enterprise -- more pressing than manned (or personed, they might say) space travel, much of the static is coming from predictable and sometimes hysterical naysayers.

There are howls of protest from Congress people whose constituencies will be affected by NASA job cuts and from conservatives, such as Charles Krauthammer, who say Obama's cuts -- by ceding human space exploration to other countries -- signal the end of America as we know it.

Not to be outdone, Alonzo Fyfe at the Atheist Ethicist Journal opines that because we need a Plan B if and when Earth is destroyed, Obama's proposal threatens the very future of humanity: it's "such a bad idea that it, alone, quite nearly disqualifies him as President." Thank God -- I mean, thank trillions of random quarks -- it's only "nearly."

At least one critique of the budget is plain surprising: James Cameron's super-blockbuster Avatar depicts what one critic called Dances with Wolves meets Star Trek: an evil Earth corporation bent on strip-mining Pandora runs afoul of the deep-planet ecology of the noble Na'vi, the aborigines who populate the utopian planet. But that hasn't stopped Cameron from endorsing the president's plan, including the private sector's involvement.

Opinions run hot if not bright because America is space crazy -- emphasis on crazy. Raised on pulp sci-fi, comic books, It Came From Outer Space, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Avatar and the like, many believe that what's out there is what we discovered right here on the frontier: noble and ignoble savages, honor, the civilizing imperative of American pioneers who, despite their "Prime Directives" of staying out of other peoples' business, manage, in the end, to make the Universe a better place.

Imperial wars in Cuba, the Philippines, Central America, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq? So 20th century. Pop culture points the way to our grandest destiny, not in the primeval forests of an unexplored continent, but in the infinite, fantastic terrain of outer space.

When we do travel into deep space someday, what we'll discover is likely to be far more fascinating than the one-dimensional characters in Avatar. But now -- in the midst of a worldwide financial crisis causing suffering that would be hard for science fiction to conjure -- isn't the time for our government to spend vast sums for human space exploration. While we fund space programs more modestly than some would like, there's more than enough here on Earth to keep us astonished indefinitely.

In a December, 2007 NYRB piece titled Where Wonders Await Us, Tim Flannery discusses two books -- The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss by Claire Nouvian and The Silent Deep: The Discovery, Ecology and Conservation of the Deep Sea by Tony Koslow -- full of astounding information and mind-blowing photos of the ocean depths. Our ignorance of this vast world is startling. Flannery: "Despite the fact that less than one percent of the ocean deep has been mapped, today our explorations are restricted to depths of six thousand meters or less."

Deep sea exploration is far cheaper and faster than space travel, and it even holds promise for helping us explore the heavens. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute notes that "Ocean research reveals fundamental planetary forces which support thriving communities of life, on and below the seafloor, that hold key clues to the evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of life on other planets."

But why expect logic to prevail when it comes to things interstellar? A Martian Wouldn't Say That also reprises this gem from a voice of TV authority regarding the iconic sitcom, The Honeymooners: "When Ralph says, 'You're going to the moon Alice,' it may be the wrong destination. The moon is generally regarded as romantic. Could Ralph send her to Mars?"

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