For Angelenos, it was a sight like no other. To me, it was a very comforting sight. For several hours this morning, the whole of California was entranced by the wonders of science. In Los Angeles, news stations treated the Space Shuttle Endeavor's fly-by goodbye as if it were sacred, blowing out their schedule for hours of live coverage.
As the shuttle, piggybacked aboard and trailed by F-16s and a photo plane, entered Northern California airspace, drivers on the highway here got out of their car and gawked. The California Highway Patrol didn't mind: They shut down the major highways to allow for an unfettered appreciation of something sublime. From Disney to Universal to Downtown LA to the office towers of El Segundo to the beaches of Malibu, the city stopped.
It was awesome. It was also, for NASA, an incredible PR coup, and scientific nationalism at its best. You wouldn't know that this was the final goodbye to the era of government-backed space exploration.
I grew up in Central Florida. When I was eight, my classmates and I watched from the lawn of our school as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Whenever the shuttle went up, class went out.
NASA scientists came to my high school to demonstrate the technology of their heat-deflecting tile shields. I attended Space Camp (and was chosen as the "commander" of the mission). We learned about the moonshot, the technological applications from space experiments, about the effects of space travel on humans. We met astronauts. I couldn't understand this as a kid, but mainstays of the economy where I lived were tourists (Disney!), the Shuttle program, and the military. The National Reconnaissance Office launches its classified payloads from the Kennedy Space Center too. Martin-Marietta made nuclear targeting packages for the military before merging with Lockheed Martin.
For the first time in NASA history, there is no follow-up to the Shuttle program. NASA is re-orientating itself to support private space exploration and its international programs. There's still a fairly hefty budget for missions to Mars, to the physically-weird LaGrange points around Earth, and to field telescopes for deep-space exploration. But the next generation of human space exploration is not in NASA's budget. It was supposed to be called Constellation, and it envisioned another moon landing by 2020. The current administration killed it. The money for NASA has to be spent "smartly," President Obama said when he tried to justify his budget cuts. Commercial space companies will partner with NASA now.
In a sense, NASA cannot hover above reality, and it is hard to justify space travel based on economics alone. NASA PR managers and the legion of contractors that work on the programs there have lists of real-world applications derived from the process of building, launching, and recovering space vehicles, and even more derived from experiments done in space. But frankly, the money argument doesn't net out. The best argument I know of for a robust NASA budget is the one that Neil DeGrasse Tyson advances.
It's similar to the argument that holds that affirmative action is good because diversity is simply good; it is an end to itself.
Tyson says that space exploration is worth the "shift in attitude that it brings upon our culture, where people then see and feel the role that innovations in science and technology play in their lives. They embrace that as a part of the identity of our culture itself." NASA, he says, is a frontier.
Maybe (sorry, Star Trek), the final frontier. Space exploration is good because space exploration is a good that marks a sophisticated and advanced society.
You will hear this phrase from advocates for a big space budget a lot: "frontier for humanity." It sounds ooey-gooey. But today, watching Los Angeles come together, marveling at the shuttle, I think there may be something to it.