Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How Can I Help NASA?

The checkout lady looked up while swiping packages of quinoa. She smiled, first at my youngest son, who had taken off his hat and was trying to give it to her, and then at my oldest, who was standing politely beside my cart (grabbing at the bags, candy, and his little brother). 

"Oh, a NASA hat. Is anyone in your family working there? They must be so proud."

I said yes, my father worked in the space industry, and yes, we were all excited about Curiosity.  I put back a Three Musketeers bar.

"So maybe you'll be astronauts!" she exclaimed happily to my sons. "With rockets and spaceships wizzing around--what an exciting time you'll live in."

If only. My parents used to think I'd live in that age. NASA is under serious pressure, I said, especially its manned program.

Checkout lady: "But if their funding keeps getting cut, something will blow up!"

I began to admire the intelligence of this woman. So many people look at Curiosity's billion-dollar pricetag and think NASA is getting too much, if anything. But as Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said, the US bank bailout exceeded the half-century lifetime budget of NASA.

"What can I do?"

The words actually felt like they echoed. And I, with two fidgeting boys, said the most expedient thing: Spread awareness.

Now this is good, and true, and helpful: letting people know, for instance, the vast number of technologies we owe to NASA, is usually an eye-opener for them. Or expounding upon the inspirational cultural power of space exploration. Or noting imperatives for the continued functioning of Earth: colonization as a valve for population pressure; monitoring climate and potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

But spreading awareness isn't the only thing, and it isn't even the most effective thing, unless you're a celebrity.

Here are things I wish I had said:

*     Congress controls NASA's budget. Write to your Senators and Representatives.

*     Refuse to vote for politicians who spout nonsense like, "NASA does less for us than (insert government agency)" or "Manned space exploration is less important than robotic exploration."

*     Join a political action group so that your voice can be pooled with others. The Planetary Society is perhaps the best-known. I am a member of the Mars Society. There's also the  National Space Society and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). 

*     Help NASA work by volunteering in scientific endeavors, like MAPPER.

At the end of our conversation, the checkout lady invited me back. "Working with groceries can be boring," she said.  "Please come back and talk to me about space."

And that's the point, isn't it? Life can be boring, or frightening, or sad. Think about what was happening when we walked on the moon. The Vietnam War, violent student protests, the Stonewall riots, Hurricane Camille, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the explosion on the USS Enterprise and the collision of the USS Frank E Evans, the Manson murders, and the first person dying of AIDS.

Sometimes, we have to look up for inspiration.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, my heart. I think you point people in plenty of right and helpful directions. I'm spreading this around everywhere I can.