As a lifelong lover of all things extraterrestrial, I’ve always believed that despite how expensive it is, space exploration is a net good for humanity as a species. Space is cool. Its vast, terrifying emptiness provides room for the imagination to fill that void with all sorts of wonders.
But that belief was somewhat shattered Friday. In a tweet that was promptly ratioed straight into the sun — or “Sol” as astronomers refer to it — the Republican National Committee posted a list of President Donald Trump’s priorities if he were to serve a second term. Half of the items listed were about space, promising Trump will: “Establish Permanent Manned Presence on The Moon” and “Send the 1st Manned Mission to Mars.”
Upon seeing the tweet, I had just one question: Why must you make me resent the moon?
That’s an exaggeration — I will always love the moon, especially with Monday’s news that more frozen water exists on its surface than we thought. But how can an administration that clearly has such a deep disregard for science love space so much?
More immediately, claiming two costly space exploration programs represent the apex of the Trump administration’s commitment to serving the people was more than the denizens of Twitter could bear. Not with the latest resurgence of the pandemic clearly off to a prodigious start, 8 million people newly impoverished since March, and still no actual plan for relief.
Almost two hours later, the GOP’s social media team appeared to have realized its unforced error, transforming the lone tweet into a thread. It now includes goals such as “developing a vaccine” (not a coronavirus vaccine, mind you, nothing that specific, just — a vaccine) by the end of the year and — a Trumpian classic and personal favorite of mine for how absurd it is — continuing to “Lead the World in Access to the Cleanest Drinking Water and Cleanest Air.”
It’s true that Trump has had a fascination with NASA and space travel — let’s not forget the time he asked NASA’s administrator why we couldn’t just go directly to Mars right now instead of returning to the moon first. NASA itself has likewise benefited from congressional benefactors like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, thanks to how its work is dispersed around the country. These past four years, NASA has not just avoided even the suggestion of harsh cuts, the White House actually wanted to grow the space agency’s budget by $25 billion this fiscal year to help boost the Artemis moon-landing program.
Honestly though, that just makes the love letters to the moon from the GOP more infuriating. The president and some GOP members of Congress, meanwhile, want to embrace the whizbang elements of science, like being the first country to put humans on Mars, while shooting the parts they disagree with in the face with a phaser set to kill.
The White House proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 called for its steepest cuts yet to funding for “federal agencies and programs that promote renewable energy, invest in low-carbon transport and study climate change and its ramifications while simultaneously boosting technology for energy sources that are warming the planet, namely natural gas and coal,” according to Roll Call. (Those cuts have yet to materialize as Congress continues to keep ignoring Trump’s budgets. That situation would likely change under a Biden administration should the GOP retain the Senate.)
And, even more galling in the last eight months, this professed love of space stands out as starkly as the aurora borealis does against the Alaskan sky when compared against this administration’s concerted refusal to believe scientists and experts as the coronavirus has continued to ravage the country. This is the same GOP whose leader would rather listen to the dulcet lullabies that Dr. Scott Atlas croons to him than the harsh realities of what it will take to rein in this disease. It’s the same GOP that has rebuked calls for a national mask mandate while scientists plead that such an order could save 100,000 lives before the year is out. The science that unlocks humanity’s escape from the bounds of gravity can’t be embraced while spurning the science that would save us from our current metaphorical free fall.
It’s frustrating to have to disagree with any support for the U.S.' space program. I’m cringing even writing this, but I can’t lie: Even now, I still stand with Sam Seaborn, presidential speechwriter in “The West Wing” and Aaron Sorkin’s mouthpiece when the benefit of space exploration is questioned:
'Cause it's next. 'Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what's next.
Mars has been extremely easy to spot in the night sky here in New York City in the early evening for the past few months. It’s been nice and, well, comforting to look up and see its faint reddish glow suspended up there, reaching my eyes despite the urban light pollution. The thought of humans actually disturbing its oxidized iron surface for the first time is breathtaking. It’s not the mission that I take issue with — it’s dangling that vision in front of the American public as a distraction.