I have a theory that about 90 per cent of the viewer interest in motor sport of any kind is the potential to watch serious crashes.

Earth's horizon seen from Space Shuttle Endeavour. Photo: NASA

Just look at what they show from the “highlights” of the Daytona series on Sports Tonight – it’s 40 cars doing quadruple flips over each other at 200 kilometres with the commentator yelling “whoa mamma!”

As space shuttle Endeavour waits on the Florida tarmac like so many QANTAS “express” flights, any interest we maintain in the NASA space program has similarly boiled down to the initial take-off explosion and whether or not the shuttle will blow-up before it touches back home. This is a shame because space exploration is an amazing and important human achievement.

The problem with the NASA space program as it stands is that it doesn’t articulate its goals and as a consequence leaves itself open to the accusation of lacking real purpose.

As distasteful as it might sound the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disintegration has lent an element of danger to shuttle mission that were becoming thought upon as somewhat turbulent long-haul flights.

So combined with the “will they, won’t they” survival factor and the stunning launches into the Florida evening sky there’s still enough public interest in space exploration as a spectacle.

But the concept of space exploration for the betterment of human kind, as a purpose “for the good of all men” as Kennedy said in his incredible moon mission speech, has completely disappeared from our psyche:

The mission description for astronauts aboard the Endeavour (hopefully) taking off today reads more like a list of chores given to you by grandma to ensure her coast house is livable after winter: “the astronauts were also expected to undertake repair and replacement work, including installing six new batteries in the ISS.”

Inspiring stuff aye? I hope they know the spare key is in the power box around the side.

There’s only one solution to stem this tide of space apathy – NASA should says it’s sending a man to Mars and say exactly when they’re planning to do it.

NASA has a stated aim of getting a manned mission to Mars by the late 2020s or early 2030s and are planning to build a moon based by about 2020 to aid this goal.

It is baffling that NASA and US Governments don’t articulate this vision more often to America and the rest of the world. Part of the reason for that may be that NASA is not assured the funding for it and as such it cautious about stating these goals more regularly.

In 2004 George W. Bush announced the Vision of Space Exploration which included plans for moon bases and a manned Mars mission.

The Obama administration has since cooled on the idea and is planning a review of the entire space program, which involves what kind of spacecraft will replace the space shuttles when they are phased out in the next few years.

Some are keen to label Obama as short-sighted in his cost-saving approach to NASA but they should probably remember that if George W. Bush had focussed more on Mars and less on going to Iraq there would have been almost $700 billion extra floating around US coffers, some of which could have helped at the comparatively meagre $18.7 billion budget that NASA is hoping for in 2010. 

The point being here that compared to military spending NASA is back of the couch cash.

Last year Stephen Hawking reiterated the importance of on-going support for a Mars mission for mankind and said that manned missions should be at the centre of any plan.

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy.”

Hawking wanted to point out how important it was to rediscover the vision in space exploration and place it firmly back into the narrative of human progress and endeavor.

Specific and realistic goals, like going to Mars, are important in fostering this.

It may also reignite excitement for space programs and remind us of our potential to go places as a species rather than merely being another form of explosion-based entertainment.

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    • Darryl Mason says:

      12:36am | 14/07/09

      “...any interest we maintain in the NASA space program has similarly boiled down to the initial take-off explosion and whether or not the shuttle will blow-up before it touches back home.”

      For you maybe. I’m still waiting for the shuttle trip return where the crew takes off their helmets and they’ve all turned into apes while in orbit.

      Humans won’t go to Mars. Robots will populate the planet first and set up what we need to survive when we get there. Hopefully by the time we actual humans arrive on the Red Planet, the autonomous robots will not have revolted and will not be waiting to ambush us.

      Unless science fiction has lied to me all these years…

    • stephen says:

      04:54am | 14/07/09

      I suppose the reason NASA doesn’t state its objective is because as technology changes and develops, so does the objective.
      Apollo 17, in 1972 (I think) was the last moon mission,and the only reason we will go back, I suppose, is as a ‘stepping stone’ to Mars.
      After 1972, the development of the Voyager spacecraft took precedence. and any further manned missions were deemed obsolete.
      Needless to say, American idealism is still apparent, and not only in conflict.

    • Josef says:

      07:41am | 14/07/09

      it’s because the missions are boring.  How much television can you get from an astronaut replacing a lens on a space telescope.  It’s like transmitting tv of a mechanic changing the battery in a car.  Surely there is something more exciting in the cosmos for NASA to go after.  They have become dull bureaucrats rather than leading edge explorers.

    • Crazy Homeless Guy says:

      08:54am | 14/07/09

      How about a manned mission which stays in stationary orbit around the sun and wait for the earth to come back. That way we will see that there is a planet in exact opposite orbit to earth full of natural resources and breathable atmosphere. I shall name it Earth 2.

    • Patrick says:

      09:06am | 14/07/09

      Why do we need to go to Mars?

    • P. Darvio says:

      09:18am | 14/07/09

      NASA and all space funding should be redirected to more important things like Bank and Auto maker Bailouts and fighting religious wars in the Middle East - at least they grap the attention of a bored public and make good TV. If humanity doesn’t get itself off this planet soon we are completly screwed.

    • Charles says:

      09:50am | 14/07/09

      Penbo quoted very racist remarks yesterday in his post about cricket and today you boldly write “any interest we maintain in the NASA space program has similarly boiled down to the initial take-off explosion and whether or not the shuttle will blow-up before it touches back home” as if you are speaking for the entire population.

      Neither are correct nor appropriate and i would hope that PUNCH writers raise their standards - quickly.

    • Frank says:

      10:07am | 14/07/09

      Problem with a Mars mission under current limitations is…the astronauts wont be coming back. We could get them there, after 3 or 4 months of flying through space at 20,000kph, but there is no way we could get them back again. The LHC and other projects are of more importance than human feet on Mars.

    • B says:

      11:00am | 14/07/09

      NASA does need to adopt the 1960’s mentality again.  Screw the OHS&W mentality of today, if we offered the chance to go to Mars to regular Joes off the street and explained to them that in the event of a solar flare they may die, they’d still go.  Hell, I know I would. 
      People are interested by danger, you’re right, so making sure that there is no risk bores us, let’s face it, the first man to invent the wheel didn’t wear Hi Vis and make sure that everyone around him was aware of the risks involved in the use of the wheel before allowing them to use it did he?
      I say we need to work out how to send a man to Mars, how to get him back and how to keep it interesting, once we’ve done that we’re cooking with gas.

    • KH says:

      11:07am | 14/07/09

      If all you care about is the blast-off, I feel very sorry for you.

      Most of us are excited by the idea of exploring another planet. NASA has been limited in funding and have been advancing their technology. The technology they used to get the first astronauts to the moon was so primitive they were lucky they made it.

      Currently the plan is: People back on the moon by 2020, build a base on the moon, use the base to launch missions to further planets (Mars first).

      Personally, I am always interested in NASA programs. I have been visiting their website lately, looking at the first moon pics from LRO, and am eagerly awaiting the impacts from the LCROSS in October!

    • Ren Finlayson says:

      11:48am | 14/07/09

      It allways shocks me that the Human race as a whole isnt spending more time trying to get us space ready. Fact is we have a limited time on this planet. Aside from any disaster we will simply run out of room.

      We really need to have a world body that is willing to pool resources to get us exploring the universe. Starting with Mars.

    • Leo Shanahan

      Leo Shanahan says:

      12:03pm | 14/07/09

      Thanks @KH,
      You’re right that there is a lot more to care about than just the blast offs, as the piece goes on to point out. What is lacking however is a general understanding of further goals for space programs, which means that the current interest of missions is generally dominated by take-offs and landings - not about going to the moon again and then Mars.

    • cynic says:

      12:52pm | 14/07/09

      You have problems trying to launch a shuttle into orbit and now you’re talking about Mars? Dream on!

    • troy says:

      01:17pm | 14/07/09

      I love this article.

      There are so many exciting things out in the universe to go and see, its just people dont seem to realize just exactly what is out there. Im an average joe who would be absolutely on board for a mission to mars but I couldnt name any planets outside of our immediate solar system and have a very limited knowledge of things like quazars, red dwarves, black holes etc…

      I have seen documentaries on space which excite me but I know it wouldnt be exciting for the majority of the population. Space needs to become more intruiging and exciting for people, and it also needs to be finacially funded by private companies and enterpenuers (spelling).

      Landing on the moon was the only forward thinking thing government funding has ever produced. Get the money from private companies and there would be space stations on mars owned by microsoft by now.

    • Clare says:

      01:20pm | 14/07/09

      we went to the moon in the 1970’s why is it taking so long for us to go back, maybe we never went there in the first place. NASA technology is old and an embarrasment. If there were aliens and the saw what technology was used they would certainly have a joke about it. NASA is falling apart. I would not trust any vehicle to take man to the moon or mars.

    • Mark says:

      01:46pm | 14/07/09

      The biggest problem for NASA getting to the Moon or Mars is the people. From my uninformed perspective, we need
      1) A power source. A high yield power source, some sort of fairly sustainable nuclear reactor capable of high output for years at a time without service
      2) A new propulsion system. The Ion engines just developed are good, but I hear there is the vasmir engine in development claims to bring Mars distance travel from into < 50 days
      3) Orbit re-entry. Lets build a ship or two that is designed for travel within the solar system, and have it not need to land on earth. They focus on building unmanned heavy lift rockets and manned people shuttles. The mentioned orbiting spacecraft should have some of these shuttles inside.
      4) Weapons/defenses/shields. Not the kind to fight Klingons, but to intercept incoming debris, rocks, etc whilst traveling between planets. No good having a ship capable of inter-planet travel if a small rock travelling at high speed can put a stop to everything.

    • Leo Shanahan

      Leo Shanahan says:

      02:01pm | 14/07/09

      Great post Mark. Thanks, it’s easy to forget about basic logistical stuff like a stray rock hitting the windscreen.

    • IJK says:

      02:36pm | 14/07/09

      Don’t be influenced by the ten second attention span of your average TV news producer. Most of us don’t watch motor racing for the crashes (the drama of Mark Webber’s win in the German GP at the weekend was as rivetting a motor race as I’ve seen in years). Nor do I wait for the Shuttle to explode on launch or re-entry. Even 40 years after the first moon landing, some (most?) of us remain absolutely fascinated by space travel. Roll on the next manned moon mission. And where’s the adventure in a robot mission to Mars? In time, we will have the technology to get men there and back. Let’s get on with it.

    • Eric says:

      06:17pm | 14/07/09

      Ben, that’s a damn good point.

      Why wait for NASA? We Aussies could do this ourselves. If we had the vision.

    • Ange Kenos says:

      07:40am | 15/07/09

      Wanna go to Mars? Well if you are a kid you can.  The eventual launch of a mission to Mars will involve today’s kids. But in the mean time we have the Victorian Space Science Education centre at Strathmore, which I co founded against direct opposition from the toffs in the Vic department of Education. This fantastic centre, the only one in the southern hemisphere, has a Martian surface that looks like the real thing. School aged kids can visit, wear astronaut suits and plan all sorts of missions to Mars

    • Leo Shanahan

      Leo Shanahan says:

      09:26am | 15/07/09

      Thanks Ange,
      I hope they have a suit that fits a six foot tall 27-year-old.

    • Madalena says:

      05:02pm | 21/11/12

      , it is time to give kudos to a leader and good gvoarnence.PM Thompson and his Cabinet have just actioned two issues that we have raised in the past.The first, raised some time ago, is the appointment of temproary workers.Having these workers in temporary’ positions for substantial time, greater than six months, is against any reasonable employment practice.Government has now lead the way in recognising this and kudos must go to the PM and Cabinet for actioning to remove an unfair practice.Secdondly, I see that the PM has asked to meet with the principals of LIME to discuss the closure of the call centre and firing of more employees..With Barbados having been the source of huge profits for Cable & Wireless (now LIME) for many years, including current, we have already said that it is both unnecesary and immoral for thatcompany to lay off staff in such a manner, when the jobs still need to be done, despite small savings by taking the work elsewhere.Further, in this economic climate, this action shows a lack of respect for the Barbados economy and for the social fabric of our society, by sending people home in the midst of an economic crisis worlwide, when the company is itself still earnings huge profits, the company is not even scraping to make a small profit, which would be grounds for restructuring at this time. This action is truly abhorrent and inhuman.Know that most Barbadians are deeply disgusted by LIME’s actions in laying off these staff in this manner, in this circumstance.Kudos for the PM and Cabinet in raising this directly with the company’s officials.While law may not allow the PM to change the action of the company, hopefully moral suasion can do some good and not only save jobs at a critical time, but also save face for LIME. This is an opportunity for management of that company to save face in the eyes of the public.Peace & live Strong.

    • Rhonny says:

      06:03am | 22/11/12

      Reply to Straight Talk You can find out much more about drill ship and semis availability and age, by going to the net.You can find acuatl rig counts in any part of the world, just about. It is not only rigs, on and offshore, that are in drastic short supply, but everything that goes with them, like drillpipe, casings, downhole pumps, pipe handeling tools, cementing units, and completion equipment, but probably most of all, experienced men, according to drilling friends in Trinidad. Young people don’t want to get stuck out half their lives on rigs any more, to learn what they need. I’m really not into the bidding and all that process, which to me is a dark deathly subject, full of stealth and politics. I just stayed with the rigs. The net can fill you in on most of that, if you just ask the right questions. For instance, go, on Google, to Barbados Offshore Oil Leases, and you’ll get all the maps. Anybody in the world, can see the blocks there. Now the steam. We drilled five steam wells in the Sulhur Springs area of St Lucia in 1975-6. Great fun and exciting, and at times horrifying, and very noisey when the wells were being tested, . etc. But all that is an old story, of long ago, and the Trini crews took over all the nice girls in Soufrier.

 

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