But this point is often lost on the general public. Often cynical of government, they see their tax dollars disappearing into a system fraught with waste to be apportioned for activities they have little or no control over. When a catastrophe like the loss of Mars Observer occurs, their cynicism boils over to discontent and outrage.
It does not always need to be this way.
If public could feel that they are participating, that they are themselves exploring an alien world, with immediate feedback, then the public might feel the space program to be worth their personal investment. Imagine if it were possible for the average person to inexpensively launch his or her own spacecraft to get just a tiny strip of data back from another planet. How many people would flock to this new activity? How many people would change their cynicism about the space program? How many people would be willing to spend some fraction of their income in exploring the solar system?
Recognize that, in a way, this technology will soon be here. The data from the space program will be available to everyone via the much-touted Information Superhighway. The I-way has already become cliche; the grandiose predictions of 500 digital channels and true two-way interactivity have yet to show up in suburbia. But the technology is indeed here, we're all waiting for the mud-wrestling of cable companies, telcos, and Hollywood conglomerates to end in a synthesis that allows the I-way to become reality.
The I-way is destined to be the new mass medium, following the telephone, radio, and television. The Net activity during the SL9 comet crash showed how individuals would explore a new medium, eager for the latest pictures from Hubble, from Galileo, from wherever.
If Jill Taxpayer can sit at home and explore a global high-resolution virtual Mars, the space program will have won a new supporter. If Joe Six-Pack could have five minutes to remotely control a micro-rover on the Moon, he might channel switch over from Monday Night Football. Through a seamless interface, millions could discover the wonder of exploring the universe in their own homes with instant results. The public would defend the space program budget from Congressional cutting, and would support new and better missions throughout the solar system.
That day will soon be here. The space program could be personal, with results that individuals could interpret for themselves, instead of being impersonally presented by museum exhibits, PBS specials and NASA press releases. NASA and SEDS are already wisely using the World Wide Web to make images and information readily available to denizens of the Net. This will continue and expand with new missions and new datasets.
Eventually, as the I-way takes form, we will have quality interactive information and a space program taxpayers will feel completely justified in supporting.
Then, the question "Why Space?" will not need to be answered. The space program will be an integral part of our culture like the television and the telephone that we wouldn't think of doing without.
Guy K. McArthur