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Social Justice in Space

Project Artemis is a reminder that NASA has long spent tax-payer dollars to have a lot to say and little to show.

America is scheduled to send people to the moon as soon as 2024. It’s called Project Artemis, and never mind the trillions in extra debt we’ve run up in the last few years, it’s a veritable steal at only $35 billion on top of the current NASA budget.

But wait just a minute. Didn’t we already do that over half a century ago? It seems that in a desperate effort to keep this Trump-era reboot going, last month the Biden administration decided to add a killer app. It’s right there in the very first sentence of the NASA Artemis website. The agency “will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.” Black Lunar Landings Matter. Just think, social justice astronauts. It sure won over the mainstream media.

Never mind that the Space Shuttle program was, and International Space Station program still is, chock full of women, ethnic minorities, and foreign nationals, clearly with an eye towards diversity. That’s why a female school teacher had the dubious honor of being among the first Space Shuttle deaths. The latest astronaut classes are about 50 percent female, clearly reflecting favoritism considering that the traditional source, military pilots, is overwhelmingly male.

But why stop there? There’s no mention of landing openly LGBQT people. Maybe NASA can recruit Wilson Cruz, a black, gay man, who plays a gay character in a science fiction series, Star Trek: Discovery. You will never cover the bases better than that.

P.C. pandering aside, could there be other reasons to go back to the lunar surface? More rocks? Nearly half a ton might seem enough, but it’s been proposed that since the rocks weren’t plucked from all parts of the moon we might find new types. But in December China brought back more using only machines. Astronauts shouldn’t go through all that training and take those risks to basically replicate Fred Flintstone’s job.

Justifying NASA’s budget, and indeed perhaps its very existence in a time when the private sector keeps showing up the agency, is clearly very important to NASA, but perhaps less so to taxpayers carrying all that new debt.

Artemis continues to show the advantages of the private sector. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has just been chosen to supply the moon-going vessels. Former NASA administrator Charles Bolden says he expects the agency’s own Space Launch System program, based on the half-century-old Space Shuttle engines, to probably “go away” because of private sector competition.

Artemis will also funnel lucre to a vast number of aerospace companies spread all over the U.S., as a NASA graphic illustrates. That’s good for those companies that surely have been lobbying hard and filling campaign coffers, but again excludes us taxpayers.

One justification from NASA is that going back to the moon is practice for eventual manned missions to Mars. But that raises the question of why send people to Mars, when America has just landed an amazing rover on the red planet that will probably spend the next decade or so using myriad instruments, including a helicopter, to collect images, scoop up soil samples for analysis, and perform numerous other tasks that would be vastly more difficult for humans restricted by their food supply. (Matt Damon’s vegetable garden in The Martian notwithstanding.) The price of the Perseverance mission is $2.9 million, actually less than that of the rover that went up a decade before.

The fact is, in retrospect even the Apollo program is hard to justify except as a Cold War morale-booster. The first landing was awesome. But Americans got bored so fast that no network even carried Apollo 13’s live cast. (Before the accident.) Hitting golf balls in low gravity and jaunts in the lunar rover didn’t maintain interest, and the last three planned flights were unceremoniously canceled.

But we are now in a new cold war, with China. Its economy is exploding, as is its weapons production. More ominous yet is its spending on futuristic technology such as quantum computing using photonic transistors that shuttle information at the speed of light, not electrons. These machines have the potential to be billions, even trillions of times faster than today’s fastest supercomputers. If China wins this race those machines will not only be able to defeat any encryption our weapons depend on while developing their own impossible-to-break encryption, they could design weapons beyond anything we can imagine. And some believe China has the lead.

It’s not that our government doesn’t realize this; the Defense Department clearly perceives a threat. But last year the U.S. announced only $1 billion for artificial intelligence and quantum computing research hubs; that’s 1/35th of the Artemis budget.

When the Apollo program began in 1961, space was truly the domain of the white male. But with the pendulum clearly having swung in the opposite direction, there’s no need to push it even farther. We need a quick restructuring of priorities.

As JFK might have put it, we need to beat the Chinese in computer development not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Oh, and because learning Mandarin is a real pain.

Michael Fumento (www.fumento.com) is an author, journalist and attorney who specializes in science issues.

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