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Bring NASA Back to Earth

I grant you it is not high on President Obama's priority list but, if he cannot ground NASA, he will never be able to rein in the much more powerful Pentagon.
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I grant you it is not high on President Obama's priority list; however, if he cannot ground NASA, he will never be able to rein in the much more powerful Pentagon. NASA has a very effective propaganda machine. Whatever modest little mission it pursues, it frames as if it was of grand importance not merely to the United States but to the human race. The most recent example is the launch of a telescope which costs a 'mere' six hundred million dollars, the immodestly labeled 'Kepler' mission. For those who have not kept up with the philosophical implications of their astronomy lessons, Johannes Kepler revolutionized our view of the world by revealing that we are not the center of the universe, that we are among a bunch of other planets which are circling the Sun rather than Mother Earth.

Dr. Ed Weiler, Head of Science Missions at NASA, told NPR that Kepler "is a historical mission. I maintain it really attacks some very basic questions that have been part of our genetic code since that first man or woman looked up in the sky and asked the question: Are we alone?" One can but respond with "Come on." Questions that are part of our genetic code? And who studied the DNA of Adam and Eve?

One could say this is merely one overblown piece of PR, dished out by those who try to justify why they are spending hundred of millions of dollars on projects that will yield very little. Actually, such statements come out of NASA and are dished out by scientists who work under contract for NASA more regularly than debris flying around in outer space.

Thus another recent NASA PR move is to tell Congress and the public that it is out to find 'life' on Mars and other planets. When many people hear references to life, images of Martians spin through their heads; some even envision civilizations that we could ally ourselves with, maybe against China, at least against some other aliens in some other galaxy. Actually, what the multi-billion dollar agency is looking for is some organic material, the size of amoebas or--even less, say, signs that once there was water on Mars. It would be nice to know, I grant you; however, given other priorities, it hardly belongs at the top of the list of what ought to be studied. Indeed, even if one insists that these funds are to be used for exploration--and not, say, finding better ways to fight disease or poverty--much more promising targets are near by, right here on Earth, in the oceans.

Although oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth, less than 5% of them have been mapped with the same degree of detail as Mars. We have rarely ventured below 6,500 meters in the oceans, although they are more than 11,000 meters deep in places. We know much less about the deepest layers of the oceans than we know about the dark side of the moon.

Yet, the potential payoffs are huge. First of all, the ocean floor is the place, bar none, where the largest amounts of untapped oil and gas are to be found. Next: NASA claims that space exploration has led to all kinds of new technology--for instance, it maintains that the coatings that allow space capsules to withstand the heat of reentry are used to make better pots and pans. But deep-sea expeditions are likely to yield even greater benefits. In order to freely explore the oceans' deepest reaches, we must learn to construct submersibles that can handle extreme pressure, as much as 18,000 pounds per square inch. The resulting materials and techniques might help us design and construct homes that could withstand cyclones, hurricanes and earthquakes.

In contrast to the remote chance of discovering conditions amenable to organic life on distant planets, it is estimated that there are up to 2 million marine life forms that are yet to be discovered in the oceans. Whenever we venture deeper, we find new species; for instance, lithistids, a rare kind of sponge present only in deep waters. Such discoveries are likely to reveal secrets of earlier life on Earth, and make up for other species that are being lost due to human expansion on the surface.

Moreover, deep-water habitats teem with life that contains the promise of new drugs and new cures for diseases. In what are still largely unexplored deep-water reef communities, the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Ft. Pierce, Florida, has discovered what is believed to be an anti-tumor agent (discodermolide); its value for humans is being tested in clinical trials. Also, scientists expect that organisms in the deep oceans can consume the methane that is seeping through the ocean floor and convert it into energy for themselves. They hope that we could learn to harvest such energy for our own use.

The discovery that dust on Mars is finer than previously thought or that water once may have flowed down its now barren craters doesn't bowl me over. Even the seas' more obvious secrets are much richer--for instance, sunken ships. Consider the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank in 1628. Raised in the 1960s, it now tells us volumes about earlier historical periods.

Perhaps most important, the oceans are a major part of our environment. They greatly affect the climate and the conditions that allow life--of real, two-legged creatures, our life--to survive. And yet we are turning one sea after another--the Mediterranean, for instance--into garbage dumps. Studying the health of oceans and how they may be protected is much more urgent than re-visiting Mars or watching shadows cross distant suns as Kepler aims to do.

There are some--including researchers who do not receive grants from NASA--who believe that we can draw inspiration from walking on the moon, but not from diving into the oceans. They may be too young to remember the admiration with which many millions followed the explorations of Jacques Cousteau. All we need is a good race with other nations--measured by how much ocean we cover and who can find more goodies faster--and ocean exploration will be all the rage.

Granted, Obama has more urgent priorities than worrying about either outer space or deep oceans. However, presidents have assistants, and they have assistants. Somebody, one cannot but hope, can bring some sense into setting priorities in spending those dollars dedicated to exploration. These may well be dedicated to discovering ways to fight disease and finding sustainable new sources of energy. But do not look for NASA for much help.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at The George Washington University and, most recently, the author of Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale, 2007).

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