Editorials

Wonder makes the case for science

A totally eclipsed supermoon rises beyond a U.S. flag Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. It was the first time that the events have made a twin appearance since 1982, and they won’t again until 2033.
A totally eclipsed supermoon rises beyond a U.S. flag Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. It was the first time that the events have made a twin appearance since 1982, and they won’t again until 2033. The Associated Press

We’ve already taken one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. And if we haven’t yet traversed the final frontier at warp speed, science still hasn’t been this exciting in decades.

The telescopes lining Sacramento sidewalks on Sunday night were a sure sign. Here, as around the world, people scrambled outside to gaze at a supermoon lunar eclipse – an event so rare that it won’t happen again for another 18 years.

Photos of the distinctive orange moon were still flying around social media on Monday when NASA took the fervor to an even higher level. Scientists confirmed what for so long has only been a premise of science fiction movies: that liquid water does indeed flow on Mars, boosting the odds for life there.

Public interest in space exploration is once again surging. Unfortunately, our country’s commitment neither to NASA, nor to the science skills that make such awe-inspiring discoveries possible, has kept pace. Support, particularly financial support, is inconsistent at best, even though the need and the public excitement are at a new high.

NASA’s spending makes up less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, but its funding is perpetually being threatened. The Obama administration has tried to slash the agency’s planetary science program but has met resistance from Congress, which has partly restored the cuts every year. Complicating matters have been delays in legislation for federal appropriations and temporary government shutdowns, such as the one the country will – we hope – narrowly avoid this week.

The Obama administration mothballed the shuttle program in 2011, choosing to rely on private companies, many of them based in California, to do the work instead. Since then, there have been some successes, but also some spectacular failures. For example, Rancho Cordova-based Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. agreed to pay $50 million to settle a dispute over an explosion at a NASA launchpad.

Meanwhile, international collaboration with Russia and China remains shaky, even though working with both countries is key to getting any major space mission off the ground. And despite more rigorous Common Core standards, the nation’s private-sector support of education is more talk than action – see Intel’s recent withdrawal of support from the nation’s most prestigious high school science contest.

If Americans really want to go where no human has gone before, we must do better. Now is the time to capitalize on the country’s collective wonder about the cosmos.

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