The verdant lawn of Washington’s National Mall was trampled to sod on two successive weekends, as tens of thousands marched for science and to call for action on climate change. Protest attire ranged from nerd chic lab coats to Leonardo DiCaprio’s don’t-look-at-me-I’m-just-an-ordinary-citizen newsboy cap. Outrage at the decimation of science agency funds in Trump’s first proposed budget was a unifying theme, stoked by concern that his administration discounts rigorous scientific inquiry in favour of alternative facts.
The proposed cuts touch on a broad range of initiatives, from critical medical research at the National Institutes of Health to standards for applying forensic evidence in criminal trials. Perhaps, most pressing for many protest participants is a fear that climate deniers are so embedded in the Trump Administration that they will force US rejection of the Paris accord on climate change. Though a 2 May bipartisan Congressional budget deal funded most science agencies at a much higher level than Trump’s initial requests, the new president will have another chance at significant cuts when he releases his detailed budget in September.
Amid such well-founded alarm, it has gone largely under-reported that one prominent science agency escaped massive cuts in Trump’s proposed budget: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The overall allocation for the agency in the fiscal year 2018 is $19.1 billion, a slight increase over current funding. But within the agency, planetary science stands to gain a whopping 20 per cent — a remarkable contrast to the budget austerity Trump hopes to impose on most federal programs.
If Trump has his way, NASA’s earth science programs will be one such casualty, slated to receive a cut of nearly 13 per cent from current funding levels. The work of these programs has been used to provide a foundation for evidence of climate change and has become a favourite target of Congressional Republicans and fossil fuel lobbyists.
At an October 2016 campaign rally, Trump pledged that he would “free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low-Earth orbit activity – big deal. Instead, we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump Administration, …America will lead the way into the stars.” Trump has thrown support behind the notion of public-private partnerships for expanding deep space exploration.
The Congressional authorization bill attached to the agency’s funding mandates that NASA cannot utilise space flight services from a foreign entity unless no NASA flights or domestic commercial providers are available. This could help launch US commercial flights to the International Space Station (ISS), rather than hitching rides on Russian or French rockets.
But who gets to go into deep space, and for what purpose? One such beneficiary of the change in emphasis is Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is planning to ferry astronauts to the ISS, beginning in 2018. But it’s not all official government work for Musk. He recently announced that two space tourists have placed deposits to make a trip to the moon next year in a SpaceX-propelled capsule.
Although Musk has said the cost of the trip is confidential, thrill-seeking high fliers have paid $20 million for a Russian-piloted trip to the ISS. A lunar excursion could be the ultimate joyride for the billionaire boys club. Yet, while other commercial space efforts have carried legitimate research goals, space tourism flights have little value beyond the cachet of an interplanetary passport stamp, making the public underwriting of these projects questionable at best.
Trump has repeatedly called putting a man on the moon one of the US “greatest victories,” and has invoked images of Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon in his rhetorical quest to make America great again. Whenever I hear the name of the Apollo astronaut, I am reminded of a decades-old urban legend about Armstrong that I first heard from a Somali traveller I met in Yogyakarta many years ago. According to the tale, when Armstrong was visiting Saudi Arabia several years before, he heard the call of the muezzin, urging people to come to prayer, and asked what it was. Upon being told its source, the astronaut said he had heard the very same sound on the moon, and converted to Islam on the spot.
Due to the story’s spread, Armstrong was inundated by requests to appear at Islamic religious observances around the world. He was so deluged that he worked with the State Department in 1983 to send a respectful, but firm, rejection of the claim to embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
But, the myth lived on through word of mouth. A few other individuals I have met in my travels over the years, generally, in the Middle East, have asked about the tale’s validity.
It is interesting to speculate about the story’s genesis. It may be that Armstrong unwittingly gave rise to the rumour when he was asked by a reporter in Egypt how he found his first visit to the country. He supposedly remarked that he found the sound of the adhan (the muezzin’s call) “spacey.” Lacking a vernacular Arabic term, the reporter translated the comment as meaning something Armstrong had heard in outer space.
I have always been enchanted by the legend, not because I believed the conversion story, but because it underscores the essence of space exploration in our collective imaginations — a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and mystery of the universe, coupled with a belief in the power of science to help unlock those mysteries.
This perspective — an understanding of the vastness of the universe, offset by our own precarious position in it — recently helped inform the first known political protest in space. The Autonomous Space Agency Network (ASAN) attached a tweet directed at Trump (“Look at that, you son of a bitch”) to a weather balloon sent into near space orbit.
The quote comes from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who said, “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.”
Similar thoughts have been voiced by others who have had an interstellar vantage point, including Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart, who said, “When you go around the Earth in an hour- and- a- half, you begin to recognise that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change. You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again, and again, and you don’t even see them.”
Psychologists have a name for this enhanced sense of perspective – the overview effect. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are studying the effect in space travellers, and are hypothesising ways to reproduce it in the Earth-bound, with the goal of helping individuals become more adaptive, and feel more connected to others.
Although I have never been to the moon, I think that international travel has helped me develop a small-scale form of overview effect. At 48 countries and counting, travel has underscored for me the essential interconnectivity of the human experience, though vastly different depending on where it unfolds and has reinforced my own infinitesimal place in life on Earth.
Perhaps, those will be some of the notions discussed at the Asian Space Technology Summit 2017, sponsored by Space Exploration Asia, taking place 11 & 12 May in Kuala Lumpur. In addition to promoting space technology curricula and exploiting the untapped business opportunities afforded by space exploration, the group’s stated goal is to “build the kind of infrastructure on which all of the humankind’s impossible achievements have been built: the infrastructure of desire and the infrastructure of vision.”
Since most of us will never travel through space, photos of our planet taken from deep space have helped affirm for many the notion that we on Earth play a role in the Big Picture, but are not the entire Big Picture.
Unfortunately, one of the line items slated to be zeroed-out in Trump’s proposed budget is for the instruments on the DSCOVR spacecraft. They transmit daily images of Earth, suspended like a blue marble in the boundless universe, which have highlighted the planet’s fragility for many viewers. Some have even been inspired by these images to call for a greater commitment to joining with other nations to find solutions to shared challenges, such as food insecurity or income inequality.
This is evidently not a perspective afforded by the view from Mar-a-Lago, so one can only hope that Trump rethinks his space policy emphasis, allowing what goes on beyond Earth’s boundaries to inform work here. It should be a policy goal to forge ahead in space exploration, without ignoring what is in the rear-view mirror. Humankind will be the better for it.