The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

The State of the Union

“Tonight is President Bush’s State of the Union address”: If we flash back to this time last year, the Mars rovers had made their historic landings on the surface of the red planet. From there, they set out on a remote-controlled quest which eventually led to a body of persuasive evidence for the past presence of water on the surface.

Then the President stood at that podium, looked the teleprompter right in the eyes, and said “we’re going to Mars” [paraphrase].

As one of my colleagues once summarized over margheritas, the next day NASA scrambled to carry out this Presidental directive, and in the next few months the science community in the United States watched as the non-Mars research programs fostered by NASA – the ones that created the Mars rover program in the first place – were monetarily shelved or scrapped for one purpose: to send people to Mars for questionable reasons, to do things that cheap probes could easily do.

We all remember the flagship case that hit the headlines like a bulldozer: the cancellation of the repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, a mission that would guarantee its continued operation through the end of the decade. Citing the risk to astronauts (but we’re willing to hurtle them at MARS?!), Sean O’Keefe has repeatedly shot down efforts to repair the aged gyroscopes on the telescope, and it seems that recent events have sealed Hubble’s fate.

Hubble was just the most visible cancellation. Other programs have also been indefinitely shelved or totally scrapped, all so we can send a couple of fragile humans to do robots’ work on a dead and distant world. While we shatter our habitat, while we shelve questions about the origin of life and the universe, while we deny basic research that would answer serious questions about our own biology, we throw people toward a distant dustball without even one critical question about the value of the basic endeavor.

So the question I pose to you is this: if the President gets up there tonight, points a finger at the DOE or NSF, and tells them that the most important thing(s) they should be doing is severing our dependence on foreign oil or spending all resources on developing nanotechnology, what do you think happens to basic science programs in these agencies?

Watch out, friends. I know the President is supposed to focus on Social Security tonight. Sometimes, however, you can short-out the third rail of politics by pissing right across it onto a different track…