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Journalism professor compares NASA to a Panda, cute but in danger of extinction

Future astronauts on the moon
Future astronauts on the moon

A journalism professor named Charles Seife posted a February 5, 2014 article in Slate in which he compared NASA to a Panda, loveable but flirting with extinction. The article suggests that the space agency has lacked a real purpose since the Apollo program.

“The moon race was a story that had everything. It had the raw appeal of base nationalism, but it was made noble by the dressings of scientific achievement. ('Rocket scientist' had become the colloquial ne plus ultra of braininess.) And it was a great human story too, complete with square-jawed and buzz-cut heroes determined to achieve glory or die with 'ad astra' on their lips. NASA had built its reputation on a fortuitous combination of accomplishing lofty national ambitions and generating a huge pile of scientific and technological achievements, all resting on the backs of the heroes in the astronaut corps.”

Sarcasm aside, the article has a point, which is somewhat undermined by its suggestion that human space flight itself is a useless, expensive undertaking. The science done on the International Space station is “of sufficient quality to win a medal at a high school science fair but fell far short of the ‘world class’ research that space-station aficionados like to conjure.” This judgment is disputed by an analysis of space station science published a few months ago in the Washington Post.

The article further falls into a trap of robots being superior to humans where scientific space exploration is concerned. The notion runs contrary to a study conducted by Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society that concluded that human astronauts are vital for gaining a scientific understanding of the high frontier of space. Add in other rationales such as commerce and even national security and the thesis falls apart.

But the article does make the valid point that space exploration costs money which neither the Congress nor the White House seems disposed to spend. Until that situation changes, NASA will be directionless, stuck on the launch pad, looking at a future that continues to recede.