Inevitably when our space program makes a few advances and the politicians decide to blow anti-matter plasma up our neutronic hyper-warp exhaust shafts, there comes the question "Why?"
Why spend all this money when there is so much left to take care of back home? That's what the critics ask, as if the space program is some kind of wasteful luxury devoted to appeasing our sense of wonder and providing us with "neat" images of the great beyond.
It is not that.
Some have asked how we can explain the space program to a single mother working two jobs to support her children in a society that seems more interested in putting robots on other planets than in helping her.
Actually, I find it easy to answer that question.
I would tell her that the space program in general is an investment in the future for those children to whom she has obviously devoted her life. I would tell her that exploring space is necessary for her children's survival and may provide those children, or at least their children and certainly their children's children, with a greater chance of survival and economic advancement.
"How is that?" she might retort. I would like to put an exact number on the answers I would have for her, but that's part of the problem.
Nobody knows exactly how many Near Earth Objects there actually are, but each one is a valid reason for expanding our presence in outer space. We're talking about giant rocks that will, eventually, smash into our planet, causing varying degrees of havoc on rich and poor alike.
And that can happen anytime. Right now the best we could hope for is to round up a few thousand people and hunker down in a cave to ride out the storm. Increasing our presence in space is necessary to prepare a way to defend our planet against that threat.
I'm sure some of you may think that Bruce Willis already took care of this problem, but I can assure you he did not.
As for economic advancement, opening up a new frontier by colonizing the moon and, eventually, Mars will mean new industries, new technological advances and new jobs.
That brings me to a few criticisms I have on the Bush plan.
Number one, much as I would love to see a man on Mars, that is the least of our priorities in space. Eventually we need to spread out to the red planet and, hopefully, terraform it, but that's a process that will take many hundreds of years to finish.
Best to start soon, but that's the underlying reason for our current unmanned missions like the Spirit rover.
Our first priorities should be replacing the space shuttle and finishing the international space station. Moving on from their we should go to the moon where we can practice living in artificial environments and begin to establish that perimeter needed to protect us against the aforementioned NEOs.
If I live to see that happen, I'll be happy. Meanwhile, I'm sure Bush's plan is mostly political grandstanding, and it's not even very original (presidents since Kennedy have periodically dragged out this same plan that was actually conceived during the first space race). So most of it will flop, as it usually does.
But some of it must be done, and not just to make the human race go "Ahhh, wow!"
Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz compared going to Mars now as the "equivalent of a family with two kids in college, one parent unemployed and the other parent working only part-time taking a two-week vacation to the Caribbean."
Again, Schatz, like others, seems to consider space exploration to be a luxury, one we can simply cut at will. That's the kind of perspective that may lead to our extinction.
Ed Brock covers public safety and municipalities for the News Daily. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.