I am unusual for a geek. I oppose a lot of what high-technology countries do with their space programs. Yahoo! News tells me today (and yes, I remain too lazy to get much news anywhere else) of a European Space Agency vehicle that will be deliberately crashed into the moon. I've had about enough.
I was raised, like many tail-end boomers (shut up, you filthy-minded freakazoids), on Star Trek. Watching the show with my little brother in the late afternoons on Washington-area Channel 20 (one of the couple of then-independent stations in the area back then--y'know, the Gilligan's Island, Dialing for Dollars, Pro Tour Bowling channel) fueled a lifetime of interest in science fiction and space generally. It also drove my mother batshit insane--the top ten lines of my childhood were all "Turn that shit down!!!", and 35 years later, Mom still flinches and goes all Tourette's at the mention of Star Trek. But that's just a happy little side memory.
It was also a time when every space launch was televised, every landing back on Earth covered religiously by network news--specifically, Walter Cronkite, of course. I watched, enthralled, in July 1970 as Neil Armstrong botched his carefully scripted first-step-on-the-moon line. Sixteen years later, my amazement had faded a bit; upon hearing of the Challenger disaster, my immediate response was, "I wondered when they were going to fuck that up."
Some benefits of space exploration and research are undeniable. The U.S. space program led to many wonders, things we take for granted and would hate to live without, and living with them is our right, our due, as American consumers. Tang is not among them, but the contribution of the space program to materials science, and an ensuing improvement in the safety of automobiles, airplanes, and other dangerous stuff cannot be questioned.
The utility of what all this research--and we are talking about billions of dollars over the last 45 years--has told us about space is another matter entirely. We live isolated, in a void that is doomed to fall to the forces of chaos and entropy. Pretty discouraging stuff, even if it won't happen while we're alive. While there has been a constant underlying promise of somewhere to go when this planet goes to hell, there's been a failure of political will to steer space exploration and research in that direction, concomitant with a failure of political will to keep this planet from going to hell. From that perspective, the space program has been a gigantic fraud, a colossal and criminal waste of our society's resources. The perversion of space research toward military purposes aggravates that problem significantly.
And now, the ESA spends craploads of money (mysteriously, I am unable to get a fix on how much) to crash a delicately balanced set of scientific instruments into our lifeless rock of a moon. I thought about an appropriate comparison here, and in doing so I have justified the existence of NASCAR.
Think about it. ESA is going to crash this thing into the Moon, for no entertainment value whatsoever, and for a scientific value that is not really comprehensible and does not really contribute to the nobler purposes of space research.
NASCAR, on the other hand, crashes stuff into other stuff, and in so doing contributes a wealth of entertainment value to a nontrivial proportion of the population (notwithstanding that this proportion of the population does not include me or anybody about whom I give a shit), and has contributed immeasurably to public safety and the economy. That's right. How many people do you think started wearing their seatbelts when Dale Earnhardt died? How many people, in watching NASCAR on Fox (which, by the way, is prevented from broadcasting administration propaganda when it's showing NASCAR--another public benefit!), are exposed to the culture of safety equipment that NASCAR proudly showcases? What in the hell would Waffle Houses in Alabama do for a profit margin if people weren't travelling from Talladega to Darlington?
I propose that the federal government terminate funding for the space program, and begin publicly funding NASCAR. I just don't see what it can hurt.