Space: If you have the money, we have a program
That's how "Star Trek" opened every episode. It's also the point of Gregory Rodriguez's column in Monday's Times, "To infinity and beyond."
Rodriguez argues that President Obama needs to challenge America to be great, and that the challenge of space travel is just the ticket.
We can't do big things unless we think big. We can't think big unless we allow our imaginations go beyond the mundane. There's nothing less mundane than galaxies far, far away.
There are, however, a couple of problems: One, money. And two, money.
Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with space and our space program. Supporters love the triumphs, the soaring inspiration of it all. Opponents argue: With so many problems here on Earth, why are we wasting money on space?
Now, throw in the worst economic downturn in decades and you get this: With so many problems here on Earth, and the fact we're so deeply in debt, why waste money on space?
Just how tight have things become?
Heck, we don't even have enough money to keep searching for ET.
Last week, in "SETI Institute's search for extraterrestrial life hits a budgetary black hole," Times staff writer Louis Sahagun reported that the guys sitting in Northern California listening for signals from other life in the universe are about out of money.
Congress gave up and cut off funding in 1993, but private sources have kept the project running.
Now? Well, it looks like it's mothball city:
In mid-April, [Tom] Pierson [the institute's chief executive officer] delivered the bad news to stakeholders, just as the array was being prepared to survey more than 50 recently discovered planets beyond our solar system that astronomers believe may be habitable.
Darn, just when we were this close.
So, 50 years after Alan Shepard put America back in the space race, we don't even have the $2.5 million a year it takes to listen for fellow inhabitants of the galaxy, much less travel there.
And Rodriguez thinks Americans are ready to spend really big bucks on space travel?
No, here's where we really are: Like so much of what's going on in the real world, space is about to become a playground for the rich.
Last Tuesday, Virgin Galactic -- British billionaire Richard Branson's commercial space venture –- announced a big step forward in its plans to take tourists into space.
For the first time, Virgin Galactic's rocket plane, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, deployed its twin tail sections in a position designed to allow it to softly return to the Earth's atmosphere from the vacuum of space.
Which is very exciting -- provided you're one of the 400 or so people who has a reservation for the company's flights.
As the story says:
Virgin Galactic, founded by Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight sometime next year from the yet-to-be-finished Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Instead of launching a rocket directly into space, a plane will fly SpaceShipTwo under its wing to 50,000 feet, where it will separate and blast off. The craft will climb to the edge of space, or about 60 miles above the Earth's surface.
At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000.
Still, I suppose this is progress. About half a century after Shepard's epic flight, an ordinary person will be able to have almost the same experience in space, and for only $200,000.
I wonder: If you pay another $50,000 or so, would they throw in a ticker-tape parade just like Shepard got? I'm sure New York City could use the money.
Well, it's not James T. Kirk's final frontier -- heck, it's not even JFK's man on the moon -– but it's all we can afford now, I guess.
Or, make that, it's all a few people can afford.
-- Paul Whitefield
Photo: An artist's rendering of the Stardust spacecraft encountering the dust and gas surrounding a comet. Credit: NASA / Associated Press