When President Obama nominated retired Marine Corps General Charles F. Bolden, Jr. to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), some of us sci-fi inclined brothers and sisters did a classic “Can I Kick It” jig at his Senate confirmation last year. We knew that something different was on the planetary horizon when a black man was put in charge. Lost on the minds of many (rightfully distracted by foreclosures, layoffs and brink of financial apocalypse) was third eye recognition that Bolden’s appointment could be as historic as Obama’s election. After years of cynical resignation over NASA’s whack-filled tricks into Earth orbit, there was a vibe of game change in the air.
NASA lost its spunk sometime before the original looking-for-Earth hit Battlestar Galactica. We space vision geeks realized NASA couldn’t or wouldn’t satisfy the fix – all the while amped on promises of orbital colonies mixed with the crack of large well-armed galactic armadas blasting invading aliens and incoming asteroids. What’s with NASA’s Gigantor-size annual budget of nearly $18 billion if all you get are goofy Kodak moments and footage of floating liquid food? NASA brass’ inability to connect with the American public about the need for manned space flight was defined by lack of imagination – the last place you’d imagine creativity being in short supply. But, despite the fact NASA accounts for only 1 percent of the overall federal budget, it’s no wonder skeptics and average cats on Earth constantly question the cost of Space Shuttle flights when considering the magnitude of problems on ground.
Enter the beauty behind combined optics and substance in President Obama’s speech at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida last week. To, first, put it less mildly: it’s about time a “person of color” makes calls on the future of humanity in space. It was never lost on us lovers of celestial fiction that White Supremacy dominated untold numbers of sci-fi flicks, novels, cartoons and shows – as if, once we reached the stars, black folks didn’t exist or were Earth-locked. That the President himself is a self-professed connoisseur of science fiction makes it rich. Mapping out his reasoning behind the cancelation of the troubled shuttle Constellation program, Obama observes: “[T]he bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned splace flight, to human exploration of space, than I am,” adding: “But we’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we can’t keep on doing the same things we’ve been doing.” In essence, he gets it. Stop using NASA as a contracting cookie jar. We should have landed on habitable planets by now rather than finding ourselves stuck on Earth sick with Ptolemaic itch.
Detractors such as original Moonwalker Neil Armstrong view the President’s shut down of future Moon missions as “ … a long downhill slide to mediocrity.” Yet, the President actually calls for a decent increase in the NASA budget, $6 billion over 5 years, with a focus on robotic exploration, privatized space travel, a look to Mars and extending the life of the International Space Station. And while airlines are grounded by Icelandic volcanic ash, the President announces plans to take globetrotting to a whole new level that mitigates risk and cost through private ventures. There’s some forward thinking in that proposal, notwithstanding worries over a future where private conglomerates and their paid security arms plunder the galaxy like the cast of Avatar. Still, while a handful of old school astronauts get to glaze nocturnal over their intimate moments with infinity and beyond, the remaining three hundred million of us can only watch static satellite shots as we wonder out loud how this helps us.
On the real, the President rolls big dice at Florida’s 25 electoral college votes. His proposal risks nearly 30,000 jobs from the sunny “Space Coast” to metro Orlando – in a state known for its bruising battleground status and defining moment in American political history. The $40 million job creation initiative might help with post-Constellation transition, but it falls on deaf Floridian ears in the immediate term as they’re already struggling with a slow recovery pace. Politically, rising Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL) may suffer from a hit by association. And, then there’s the impact on space industry states like Alabama and Texas, two other crucial states, including one where Obama-supporter and Congressman Artur Davis (D-AL) attempts a bid at becoming his state’s first black governor. Like healthcare, here’s another transformative piece with nasty repercussions.