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Republicans in space

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The man with a plan

Sometimes politicians just make it way, way too easy. Newt Gingrich set himself up for a whole lot of ridicule on January 25th, when he promised a crowd of supporters in Florida a permanent moon base by the end of his second term as president.

The not-so-aptly-named Newton went on to imply that this base could become “the 51st state” and gave this reasoning for the project:

We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism, and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.

Because everybody knows we’ve got to beat those Reds.

Still, an idea this grandiose deserves a moment of consideration. After all, American science programs have been lacking in a big way since the end of the original Space Race. NASA is basically dead, so all suggestions for getting us back on track are more than welcome by the scientific community.

So why are scientists still guffawing at Gingrich’s proposal? It’s not because we have no reason to build a moon base. NASA has actually published 181 reasons to do just that. If nothing else, a base on the moon could be our best way to get astronauts to Mars successfully.

That doesn’t mean that a colony, let alone a state of 13,000 US citizens, is feasible now or in the new future. Ray Villard at Discovery made a couple good points. First of all, getting 13,000 Americans to relocate to the moon in this economic climate? We can’t even get 13,000 Americans to buy new condos in Brooklyn. Secondly, do we really need a 51st state that ranges from about 220,000 to 250,000 miles away from the rest of us at any given time? Americans have a bad track record with the whole idea of shipping off to colonies far from the Motherland.

Probably the only way to fund this

We just don’t have the money for it. Private sector space exploration is coming, but space tourism is going to focus on much shorter trips for the foreseeable future. Unless Bill Gates and ten of his richest friends decide they want to set up permanent summer homes on the moon, there isn’t enough money to make it happen.

All this aside, there is actually a treaty against us up and claiming that we own the moon. Even if the first moon base is “American” in origin, we won’t be able to claim the satellite’s resources as our own, and we definitely won’t be able to declare it a state without some serious hubbub from our fellow space-faring nations.

We have the technology, and we have plenty of scientists who would totally geek out over the prospect of working on a moon base. It will happen eventually, but chances are it’s going to take awhile…and the USA probably won’t be the country in charge of the project.

Check out a version of this story at my school paper, The Llama Ledger 

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Awkward encounters with laymen

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Yesterday I met my first climate change denier. Sue me, I go to school in New England. These guys are like leprechauns around here. Misinformed, nonsensical leprechauns.

I couldn’t do anything but smile and nod (again, sue me, but I was on the clock and I love my job), so here are some responses I very nearly screamed:

That textbook is just somebody’s opinion. I’d like to see his credentials. 

Yes, well, gravity was just someone’s opinion, but then we did all this research to back it up, and…oh, no, the textbook has that stuff too. Speaking of credentials, where are yours?

My brother is a scientist, and he told me it’s all bunk.

What field is your brother in, exactly? Something tells me it isn’t environmental science. I mean, my mom was a great OB/GYN in her day, but I wouldn’t ask her to perform a kidney transplant.

I’ve had a whole lifetime of experience to observe this stuff.

I’ve had four years of hardcore studying to actually analyze this stuff, you’ve spent fifty-odd years telling people about how much snow you think there was that one time. I don’t know, maybe we both suck.

Like the whole oil spill thing. The ocean secretes way more oil naturally than we ever spilled from drilling.

What the what? Oil does not equal petroleum. You keep saying that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

There’s just as much data against it. More data. 

Hm. I bet if I got my laptop out, I could find data that supported a negative human impact on the environment. Want to race?

Climate change is just a natural geological process. The earth goes through cycles. Like with the ice age.

I want to hit you in the face.

We don’t do science

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I’ve been doing a lot of research for the oh-my-god-all-encompassing-incredibly-brilliant-thesis, and the book that’s given me the most to chew on so far is Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

I can’t pretend that I think this book is the most fascinating read of our age. It’s pretty shallow, coming to a conclusion that seems too obvious and simple to be of much help. It was a valuable read for me, as a student planning a thesis on science writing and scientific literacy, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to my friends.

The main thing it’s got me thinking about is the rise and fall of scientific literacy in America throughout the 20th century. It goes a little something like this:

Communists: Funding American Science Since 1957

Exit WWII, enter Cold War. If the USSR has one, we need one too. Nuclear weapons are just one example of many. For another, think about those vials of smallpox that exist in Russia and the US. Our international pissing contest was such that we required a test tube full of an incredibly deadly, eradicated disease. The Reds shot Sputnik into the atmosphere, and that was our cue to hop on the science bandwagon.

When people ask about this period of American education, I always point them towards October Sky. High schools opened up accelerated math classes. Children shot rockets out of their backyards after school. Everyone wanted to be an astronaut, and anyone could become one. This is not to say that jocks suddenly relinquished their varsity jackets to the local nerds, but intelligence gained a newfound respect. More importantly, a child with gifts in the maths and sciences could excel within the public school system.

In 1969, we got to the moon. First.

It’s all gone downhill from there.

Even in my short lifetime, science has lost ground. The most scientific thing I’ve heard in the primaries has been Newt’s call for a moon base.

After writing that  last sentence, I had to take a break to eat some girl scout cookies and cry a little. Back to business.

Bill Nye was a household name just  a decade ago, and his show wasn’t the only one on TV that pushed science education. These days, my equally nerdy baby sister watches Animal Planet, getting her science fix from shows geared towards adults. Even that genre is sparse.

How do we bring science back to America?

More on that to follow.