birthday-rocket-312-p

Happy Birthday NASA! The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began operations on October 1, 1958 barely two months after the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act (which congress approved on July 29, 1958).   Since then the space agency has encountered myriad astonishing successes from landing humans on the moon, to leaving the solar system, to building the only working space planes, to exploring the planets and sun with robots (and doing so much else).  In order to accomplish these astonishing missions, NASA has spearheaded countless breakthroughs in science.   During its 55 year history, the space agency has caused revolutions in fundamental astronomy, physics, aerospace engineering, materials sciences, ecology (and many, many other fields).  NASA is a resounding success—it is one of the greatest human institutions for exploring, learning, and innovation.

nasa-astronaut-on-the-moon

It is somewhat ironic that today is the space agency’s anniversary because the shutdown of the American government has is deeply hurting the agency.  Of NASA’s 18,000 employees, 97% are on unpaid furlough. All projects other than active missions are temporarily suspended.  This is serious business, because space projects, like cakes in the oven, do not deal with suspension very well.  The more time spacecraft spend here on Earth being shuttled in and out of storage, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong.  Also, the universe did not shut down because of funding trouble—so missions with orbital based schedules will potentially have to be held up for years.

Sigh--Don't hold your breath for this...

Sigh–Don’t hold your breath for this…

For anyone reading this in the far future or from a cave deep beneath the Earth, this is all a by-product of a failure of America’s split legislative houses to pass a budget due to political feuding.  Extreme right wing legislators who do not wish for Americans to be able to afford health care (and believe that if the government is defunded it will advance the wealthy business leaders whom they serve) are holding the national budget hostage in the hopes that they can disassemble the Affordable Care Medical Act.  Congressional districts in America are laughably gerrymandered (i.e. designed to be perfectly safe for incumbents) so it will be some time before the majority of voters can remove these dangerous and incompetent politicians from office.

"I want to hurt sick people AND stop human progress." (citation needed)

“I want to hurt sick people AND stop human progress.” (citation needed)

Even before the government shutdown, NASA has been having political and funding trouble.  The anti-government right-wing caucus in the House of Representatives has been trying to bleed away more and more of its funding (many of the so-called tea party caucus are also religious fundamentalists, so science makes them nervous and unhappy anyway).  All of this strikes me as appallingly short-sighted.  The legislators who believe the market to be the supreme arbiter of human affairs are clearly being paid to espouse such a short-sighted objective. While, the market is quite good at selling everyone plastic rubbish, crooked equities, and hair loss pills, by itself the system is fundamentally incapable of the sort of research which moves humankind forward.  Blue sky research into the unknown is not a job for abusive oligarchs and fat corrupt businessmen.  The exploration of the universe and of cutting edge science is a task for the brilliant men and women of NASA–but at present they are at home worrying about their bills and looking at the employment section for less important (but better paying) jobs.

At least you don't need a clean room to flip burgers...

At least you don’t need a clean room to flip burgers…