One of the things I'm passionate about is space flight. I just wrote on Engineer Blogs about how NASA partnered with industry to build a quieter jet engine. I believe both manned and unmanned space flights need to continue because what we gain in knowledge and experience far outweighs the short term costs and risks. The image below is from a flight just last night of the Stardust-NExT. It passed the Tempel 1 Comet at 8:41 PST at a distance of 946.05 trillion kilometers on Valentine's Day for a romantic encounter and a few pictures.
We last flew by the comet in 2005 with the Deep Impact mission. What are the advantages of whizzing by a comet a second time? It certainly doesn't come free.
Total cost of launching and running the Stardust program was $300 million (US). It's actually part of a low cost series of proposals NASA put out to industry to see what kind of cheap unmanned space flight could be built for scientific endeavors. It's built and run by Lockheed Martin. When you consider Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet costs $92 million of the shelf, not including development costs built into the contract and what it actually costs to train pilots, pay ground crew, and support repairs and further operation of the F-35 (of which the US has agreed to buy 2,443 so far) the Stardust looks like a freaking bargain. The F-35, as kick ass as I think it is, can't even go into space.
In the movie Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is asked what he thinks about the possible end of the Apollo program and he asks the reporter, "What if after Christopher Columbus no other explorers had returned to the Americas?" I think the near total annhilation of Native Americans at the hands of European imperialists is probably a terrible metaphor. But I think many people do wonder what the point of going up into space now. We've already been to the moon, we've built a space station, what more is there to do? It's gotten so bad NASA has to sell every single project it does in some neatly packaged PR blitz. Though I think the wallpaper they designed is rather adorable (click to embiggen).
You don't see Lockheed or Northrop having to justify their expenses to the public with a "why are we building this" even when in the short term fighter jets don't seem to be a crucial part of our successful war strategy. And many would argue that neither a large defense program or a space research program are necessities we should be spending tax dollars on. I won't argue on behalf of needing a strong and modern air force today, but I do think having a strong space flight and research program is equally as necessary and yet completely undervalued. It's to the point now where our shuttle astronauts are hardly astronauts anymore as much as they are marketers and spokespeople for manned space flight and for the space station. Shuttle Astronaut Shannon Walker asked "Why should the United States explore space?" in a YouTube video contest. The three winning entries are worth watching and their excitement and attitudes really inspire me and give me hope for a future where space is a cornerstone of who we are and continues to contribute in powerful ways to our science, technology, manufacturing and industry.