Readers of a cer­tain age (ahem!) may remem­ber the old “Point-Counterpoint” seg­ment that used to close out the CBS news show “60 Minutes.” That was before Andy Rooney, whose own seg­ment end­ed short­ly before his death in 2011. Now we’re real­ly show­ing our age. 

The idea behind the show was to fea­ture two com­men­ta­tors with oppos­ing views, each giv­ing their own take on the issue. We thought it might be fun to try some­thing sim­i­lar. We’re call­ing it “Give and Take.” 

This is an exper­i­ment. Depending on how it goes over with our read­er­ship, we may do more of these. 

Witt: money can best be spent elsewhere

A good many peo­ple are enam­ored by the work of NASA, and there is no doubt that the orga­ni­za­tion has a well-oiled pub­lic rela­tions apparatus.

In fact, the day before this was being writ­ten, all nation­al news media were air­ing sto­ries about the newest rock­et being pre­pared for a launch that would place a satel­lite to cir­cle the Moon in fur­ther prepa­ra­tion for anoth­er manned mis­sion there in 2025, to be fol­lowed by a manned mis­sion to Mars.

Humans have not set foot on the moon since 1972 – 50 years – and the manned mis­sion to Mars is expect­ed to occur in the late 2030s or ear­ly 2040s.

Let there be no mis­take.  The efforts to explore space have been both mon­u­men­tal and momen­tous, with a long-term manned space sta­tion in place and, more recent­ly, the phe­nom­e­nal­ly pre­cise place­ment of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is ren­der­ing the most engross­ing pic­tures of the far reach­es of space. 

(The JWST images raise some inter­est­ing philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions, such as: If the tele­scope can see as far as the very begin­ning of the uni­verse, what will it see?) 

The sci­en­tif­ic advances of the space pro­grams, those of America and numer­ous oth­er coun­tries, have been unques­tion­ably enor­mous and valu­able. But I believe that the nation­al bud­gets for research orga­ni­za­tions should be more focused toward deal­ing with issues that more direct­ly affect the con­tin­u­ing well-being of mankind.

For instance, the bud­get for NASA in 2021 was set at $23.3 bil­lion.  And while this rep­re­sents an infin­i­tes­i­mal por­tion of the total nation­al bud­get, it is over four times more than was bud­get­ed most recent­ly for NOAA, the orga­ni­za­tion which research­es ocean­ic and atmos­pher­ic issues, $5.48 billion.

NASA’s Artemis pro­gram, antic­i­pat­ing plac­ing a man on the moon in 2025, will have cost a pro­ject­ed $93 bil­lion, near­ly sev­en­teen times the year­ly bud­get of NOAA — and that accu­mu­lat­ed cost is only a por­tion of the total bud­get of NASA for the period.

There is hard­ly a day on which Science Alert, a dai­ly online sci­ence report, doesn’t have at least one news item relat­ing to ocean­ic research.  On August 18th that report had three ocean-relat­ed news stories.

The point to all this is that our oceans and seas have far more influ­ence on what hap­pens here on Earth than does any­thing hap­pen­ing on either the Moon or Mars.

The satel­lites cur­rent­ly orbit­ing Earth are a great ben­e­fit in help­ing deal with ongo­ing occur­rences in our atmos­phere, pre­dict­ing the direc­tions and paths of storms, and track­ing air pol­lu­tion — espe­cial­ly that of the numer­ous for­est fires now being expe­ri­enced all around the globe.  And the coöper­a­tion between NASA and NOAA reaps ben­e­fits every day.

Humans have been endowed with an innate curios­i­ty, con­stant­ly striv­ing to under­stand and com­pre­hend every­thing pre­vi­ous­ly unknown.  That curios­i­ty obvi­ous­ly extends into space, first lim­it­ed to what could be seen with the naked eye and then with the first crude tele­scopes, and now with the JWST.  This is as it should be.

But I sug­gest that that same curios­i­ty exists in the con­stant search for what is hap­pen­ing on and under our oceans, which com­prise 71% of the sur­face of our frag­ile lit­tle planet.

Discovering the secrets hid­den on the Moon and Mars will con­tin­ue to pester the mind of mankind far into the future.

But the secrets still con­cealed in the depths of the one ele­ment that makes life on this plan­et pos­si­ble are far more cru­cial to rev­e­la­tion now – espe­cial­ly now that cli­mate change is affect­ing, and is affect­ed by, what is hap­pen­ing in the ocean — than what lies on the dark side of the Moon or the plains and craters on the sur­face of Mars.

Koutoulas: we can do both

I don’t dis­agree with any of the facts as laid out by my good friend above. But I do take excep­tion to the implied notion that fund­ing for NASA is com­ing at the expense of ocean­ic explo­ration and research, or any oth­er sci­ence-based activity. 

First, allow me to reit­er­ate what we agree on: 

  • NASA’s 20-some­thing bil­lion dol­lar bud­get is a very tiny slice of fed­er­al spending. 
  • Much of the research under­tak­en by NASA and oth­er space agen­cies around the world is ben­e­fi­cial to humanity
  • We have spent far less and done less in the area of ocean­ic research than we have done in space — and we should be doing more in this area

Chuck may be sur­prised that I also agree with him about the prob­lem­at­ic Artemis pro­gram. The pro­gram was offi­cial­ly launched in 2017 under then-pres­i­dent Donald Trump, but its roots trace back at least to the admin­is­tra­tion of George W. Bush and con­tin­ued through the Obama years. 

Through sev­er­al can­cel­la­tions and reboots, the plan to put humans back on the moon has been in the works since the mid-2000s. It has been crit­i­cized by many in the space explo­ration com­mu­ni­ty as too expen­sive, too inef­fi­cient, and not strate­gi­cal­ly viable. Many even ques­tion the val­ue of manned space explo­ration in the era of so many suc­cess­ful robot­ic mis­sions with­in the solar system. 

I agree.

I see lit­tle rea­son to send astro­nauts back to the moon. And even less rea­son to try to send them beyond the moon. Despite what Elon Musk says, send­ing humans to Mars safe­ly is still well beyond our capa­bil­i­ties — and would have astro­nom­i­cal (see what I did there?) costs. It’s my con­tention that the main rea­son we still have the Artemis pro­gram is polit­i­cal. It brings jobs to states like California, Florida, Texas, and Alabama, among oth­ers with mas­sive space industries.

If you want space sci­ence, you want fast, inex­pen­sive, flex­i­ble mis­sions. During the first two decades of the 21st cen­tu­ry, NASA has made great strides in plan­e­tary sci­ence with high­ly-suc­cess­ful robot­ic mis­sions, such as New Horizons (Pluto and the Kuiper Belt), OSIRIS-REx, (aster­oid Bennu), Curiosity and oth­ers (Mars), Cassini (moons of Saturn), and many more. 

The impor­tant sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies made by these amaz­ing robot­ic space­craft not only help us under­stand our neigh­bors in the Solar System, but also have appli­ca­tions right here on Earth. I believe that’s where NASA’s empha­sis needs to be going forward. 

What about the ocean? I believe we should be invest­ing much more in ocean­ic research, not to men­tion cli­mate sci­ence, renew­able ener­gy, semi­con­duc­tors, and more. 

Getting a han­dle on how much the US gov­ern­ment bud­gets for sci­ence research is com­pli­cat­ed, and I could­n’t get any fast and easy answers. Science research is embed­ded in many dif­fer­ent depart­ments across the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment; there is no one sec­tion of the bud­get devot­ed to it. But I have a sense that we spend in the neigh­bor­hood of $200 bil­lion per year on what can loose­ly be called sci­ence, includ­ing defense research and development.

While the total bud­get of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment was about $6 tril­lion in 2021, most of that went for manda­to­ry spend­ing (think Medicare, Social Security, and unem­ploy­ment) and debt ser­vice. Nearly $1.7 tril­lion is left over for dis­cre­tionary spend­ing — every­thing else. NASA’s share is about 1.4% of that. 

Compare that to mil­i­tary spend­ing: almost $950 bil­lion, or about 55% of dis­cre­tionary spend­ing. If you’re look­ing for more mon­ey to spend on oth­er sci­ence pri­or­i­ties, I would sug­gest look­ing for ways to cut from the mil­i­tary rather than NASA. Surely they could give up a few mis­siles or an F‑35 Joint Strike Fighter or two. 

Over the last two decades, we’ve spent $8 tril­lion on wars in Iran and Afghanistan. This is the cost of the “war on ter­ror.” (Not to men­tion 900,000 mil­i­tary and civil­ian deaths.)

To be blunt: what the hell do we have to show for all that mon­ey and human suffering? 

(One might respond that what we got was two decades with­out any major for­eign ter­ror attacks on U.S. soil. I believe we could have accom­plished that — if indeed it was the result of our actions — at far less cost in terms of both mon­ey and lives.) 

So I say, let’s do both, or rather, let’s do a lot more. Because mon­ey invest­ed in sci­ence brings much more ben­e­fit to human­i­ty than mon­ey spent killing people. 

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.