War of the worlds

Kathleen O’Brien is a TMCC High School English teacher.

What do you think of a family that lives paycheck to paycheck, makes the minimum credit card payment every month, yet goes out and buys a flat-panel TV? Is that responsible? Or would you suggest—perhaps not too gently—that, considering their circumstances, they might have spent their $1,233.99 more thoughtfully?

When I watched the people in the Spirit control room after the successful Mars touchdown leaping and whooping with joy, I shared their happiness. But I could only hold the feeling for about 30 seconds because my own values crept in, permeating me with sadness that resulted from a sense of impotence.

I’m an Earthling. I’d rather smell sagebrush or hike under pines than look at photos of space or even travel there. I consider the space program a luxury. People argue that space exploration is pioneering; it results in cool technological advances; some even consider it a method of conquest. I won’t debate them, and I’ll ignore for now the numerous ways we’ll rape space as soon as we get the chance. But I say let’s conquer problems on Earth before we indulge our fancies with missions to Mars. The $820 million spent on the Spirit rover is a decent chunk of change America could spend better elsewhere.

Instead of photos of the Martian landscape, give me panoramics of the 56,944 people who could have health insurance for a year. Let me feast my eyes on the faces of the 9,762 families of four who could buy groceries for a year. Send me pictures of impoverished Americans enrolled in education or job training programs, working for the chance to transcend public assistance. If those investments are too real for people who would rather engage in folly than help provide basic necessities, how about this: Those millions could buy back chunks of land owned by developers, create parks, save historic buildings, support museums or fund research in alternative energy sources or sustainable living practices.

I don’t begrudge the NASA scientists their unfettered joy; it’s cool that they get to devote themselves to a job for which they feel such passion, and they’ve earned their celebration. But the space program is really just a diversion—one that allows Americans to say, out of one side of their mouths, “Hey, world! We’re ahead of you all,” then turn around and complain that, although our students are way behind other industrialized nations in science and math, we can’t afford to fund education.

I don’t resent paying taxes to support national infrastructure, but I do mind paying for frivolities. I know many disagree with me, so here’s a suggestion: On my tax return every year, I get to check "yes" or "no" next to a line that asks me whether I’d like to contribute $3 to Presidential Election Campaign. Let’s add another checkbox for contributions to Space Exploration—at least until our earthly bills are paid.