The Common Good
November 2013

NASA's Earthbound Solutions

by Ed Spivey Jr. | November 2013

Domestic space flight is an idea whose time has come.

WITH THE HEAT of mid-year finally over—judging by the fact that Dallas has settled into a sweater-friendly 97 degrees—it’s time to look back and see what we’ve learned from another summer filled with unpredictable weather extremes.

Illustration by Ken Davis

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For example, a couple weeks in August were actually extremely comfortable, which was no help to my crusade to convince Fox-loving friends that the earth is warming. Lately, even scientists have been of little use, adamantly refusing to blame rampant forest fires and extreme droughts on climate change. They insist on “analyzing” patterns of weather “over time” to honor “standards of science.” There’s nothing worse than climatologists dragging their feet when there are righteous accusations to be flung. Global warming is behind EVERYTHING wrong! You know it. I know it.

Okay, sorry.

But this summer had way too many examples of the extreme consequences of climate change, including deadly tornadoes, inundating floods, and town hall meetings that brought forth a storm of discontent. Unsuspecting members of Congress had left the comforting gridlock of Washington, D.C., and, failing to first check for a full moon, had innocently invited questions from constituents in their home districts. This is almost always a mistake. You really need to test the water before you just walk into a home district unprepared.

According to many vocal Americans sitting in air-conditioned town halls, climate change is a hoax, President Obama has still not been born in the United States, and he refuses to renounce his Kenyan birthplace. (Even though he wasn’t born there, it would be a nice gesture.) In a related matter, Texas senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz—is “notgonnahappenful” a word?—renounced his Canadian citizenship after discovering he was accidentally born outside the United States. It happens.

But back to this global warming problem, which seems to provide a unique opportunity for NASA in its struggle with draconian budget cuts. Yes, any dream of human space flight to distant planets is now untenable, even if it was always a dumb idea to begin with. (“Houston, we found another rock!”) But I’m thinking there are places here on earth just as alien and inhospitable.

Mars, for example, is extremely cold at night, but not that much colder than Fargo, North Dakota, in February, give or take. Venus is extremely hot, with temperatures reaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit—definitely hotter than Death Valley—but at some point who can tell the difference? (Outdoor chefs on Venus reportedly have to turn their sidewalk eggs more quickly, if they want them over-easy.)

My point is, instead of sending astronauts to distant parts of the galaxy, why not send them instead to, say, Phoenix? There would be several advantages:

Airlines fly there on a regular basis, so astronauts could book seats on one of those. Of course, as savvy travelers will tell you, they should eat before they get to the airport. You won’t believe how much Tang costs at the food court these days.

  • NASA wouldn’t have to lease space on Russian rockets. The next one is already a little crowded with Edward Snowden, who should have read the fine print when Russia permitted him onto its “territory.”
  • Upon landing, inter-species communication would be easier, since the life forms encountered would have familiar social skills and language. Of course, astronauts would probably have to speak much louder if they wandered into an Applebee’s.
  • Once the day’s exploration is completed (“Houston, we found another rock! And a great taco place!”), crew members would return to the climate-controlled comfort of their home base—maybe a Hampton Inn or a Super 8—instead of an expensive landing pod.

YOU GET THE idea. Since Congress is always looking for ways to cut unnecessary expenditures, such as Head Start and food stamps—pretty much anything not produced by Lockheed Martin—domestic space exploration is an idea whose time has come. It’s cheap, it’s quick, and maybe even a little fun. (“Houston, can we stay longer? They’ve got go-carts!”) 

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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