It’s been a magnificent week in the space business. On 4/27/17, the spacecraft Cassini transmitted unprecedented close-up views of the planet Saturn. In the words of Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division: “In the grandest tradition of exploration, the Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare.”
Cassini, launched on 10/15/97 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40, has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004 and, according to NASA’s periodic reports, its discoveries have given us a better understanding of Saturn’s moons, particularly their potential for bearing life.
There are more profound questions that should be asked. Other than simply providing a lot of salaries for a host of people, how does the $2.6 billion, which the U.S. taxpayer has thus far contributed to this project, actually serve some public good? More specifically, how does a view showing a hurricane-like maelstrom at Saturn’s northern pool together with glimpses of distinct cloud formation actually benefit the average citizen?
Admittedly, there may be a profit to be made in space. Apparently Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, believes that a lot of bored millionaires will pay handsomely for a 50-mile joyride into the stratosphere. And if so, I can only wish them success. As there’s a brisk market for such trifles as a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair and a blouse worn by Marilyn Monroe, why not an excursion which provides a lifetime of bragging rights?
In an earlier time, during the Cold War, with world supremacy on the line, the space race could be rationalized, as the U.S. and the USSR aggressively competed in technological one-upmanship. However, with moonwalks no longer in vogue and the targeting of our sister planets with occasional rocket shots having become tiresome, there’s nothing of consequence to be done. We may fantasize about a colony on Mars or discovering an alien race in a distant galaxy, but it’s mostly pipedream. All that our governmental activities in space now accomplish is feeding taxpayer money to selected recipients.