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Getting priorities straight to help the needy - Clay Wilson

This column may seem a bit odd, coming as it does on the heels of last week's plug for a system capable of capturing light as it originates from the sun so we can get an eight-minute jump on the future.

But last week's piece was firmly tongue-in-cheek. This one isn't.

On Dec. 18 n seven days before Christmas, that season when charity toward the less fortunate is at a general all-time high n two news articles caught my eye. Although at first glance they may seem entirely unrelated, they stuck in a jarring juxtaposition in my mind.

The first Associated Press article concerned a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that said requests for emergency food assistance rose 17 percent overall from last year in 25 large cities. Requests for emergency shelter assistance rose 13 percent, the report said.

It also said that as the need increases, cities are having to turn requests for aid away, with more than 14 percent of requests being unmet.

Among the cited contributors to the problem were unemployment, low-paying jobs, high housing and energy costs and substance abuse.

The second AP article concerned newly released images from the Spitzer Space Telescope, "a super-cooled orbiting observatory that can look through obscuring dust to capture images never before seen."

I'll concede that the telescope sounds really cool. It also carries a chilling price tag: $670 million, according to the story.

So my question is this, asked with all the naivete and bleeding-heart idealism that conservatives generally accuse liberals of possessing: Couldn't that $670 million be spent on programs that feed and shelter hungry and homeless people, rather than on a space telescope?

Don't get me wrong: I'm down with space exploration. Like everyone else, I've oohed and ahhed over the pictures from the "Spirit" Mars Rover. And I can't help but get excited over the prospect of a human colony on Mars.

I also realize that scientific exploration is one of the things that set humans apart as a species, and that most if not all of our greatest discoveries have resulted from such efforts.

But $670 million for a telescope that has to operate at minus-450 degrees F so it can detect a comet 550,000 million miles from the sun (that's really the number in the article n I didn't make it up)?

Admittedly, the pictures from the telescope are neat. But try telling a single mother who works two jobs and still can't feed her kids that the $670 million is better spent on a giant, orbiting Polaroid Zoom than on social aid programs.

If nothing else, as a more conservative colleague facetiously suggested, why not spend the money on programs to train homeless people to build the see-into-the-past camera system I wrote about last week?

I'm aware that this column is fraught with the hypocrisy that often besets opinion pieces. I spend money every day on things I don't need, money that could go to the less fortunate.

But the government doesn't give me that choice. It doesn't ask whether I'd prefer my tax dollars to build a base on the moon for astronauts or a home right here on earth for a poor family.

Even from sheer self-interest, I'm hard-pressed to identify how a $670 million space telescope is going to benefit me. Except, I suppose, allowing me to amaze my friends with the fact that 3.25 billion light years away there is a galaxy that has 1,000 times more energy than the Milky Way.

I'll be sure to tell that to the next homeless person I meet. I bet he'll be fascinated.

Clay Wilson is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.