One of my earliest memories involves the space program. My parents, believing it would do me good, had placed me in a Catholic school during the first few years of my academic life. These years corresponded with the early years of the Space Shuttle launches, and one launch in particular made the news in a big enough way that even an almost-five-year old couldn't ignore it.
So the next day, as the nun was explaining to us kindergartners the breadth of God's powers (everything that happens, He made happen. Next?) I asked what, to me, seemed both important and timely: Did God make the space ship blow up?
I was told that yes, of course, God made the space ship blow up.
There are two ways the rest of this story can go: my lifelong skepticism of organized religion, or my lifelong obsession with manned space exploration. Tomorrow is July 20, 2009. Which way do you think we're going?
Manned space exploration suffers from a number of drawbacks, as far as we evangelicals are concerned. The first is that it is expensive. Not "invade a country that poses no threat so we can be bogged down in a ruinous war" expensive, nor even "help out bankers who've spent years reaming us for fun" expensive, but expensive nonetheless. Optimistic proposals to send a crew to Mars run to $100 billion over 10 years, and more pessimistic analyses take in to account the fact that America's industrial base can no longer make a commercially successful car, much less a lunar lander, and come up with much higher numbers.
I'd like to see what Barack Obama has to say about Apollo 11, I really would. I think if someone can imbue this whole mess with some awe and dignity again, it would be him. But even I can't really tell you with a straight face that, on this anniversary of an enormous accomplishment, we should do it again before another decade passes. (That would make 50 years, and the likelihood of some or all of the Apollo 11 crew having passed by then is non-trivial.)
As I implied above, if we're going to light a pile of money on fire, I think the space program is one of the least obnoxious ways to do so. But even I can see that any money spent on my pet project is less money to go around for other things, like stopping the planet from dying. For example. While I don't think the fiscal reality is that a trade-off is necessary, I think the political reality is that a) military spending is sacrosanct, and unlikely to get less so, while b) NASA, as successful as it is at protecting its budget, has spent 40 years coasting on goodwill largely left over from the Apollo era.
And some day soon, the number of Americans who have no living memory of an Apollo launch will outnumber those who do.
Aside from the fiscal problems, there are some other, more intractable problems associated with space flight, especially the kind where we wrap men (almost always, penises seem to be required somewhere in the mission) in exotic fabrics and shoot them off at several miles a second. And that latter part of the process is a biggie: the amount of energy it takes to send even a minimal crew to the astronomical equivalent of the Canary Islands is truly staggering, and regular readers won't be surprised to think that I'm not certain that kind of energy will be easily available in the future -- or if it is, it won't be politically palatable to squander it on a vanity project.
So that leaves the wild cards: what happens if, say, the Bussard Fusion people turn out to be right, and we're soon deluged with all the cheap energy we joule-addicts could want? Suddenly, lofting a crew from the Earth to Mars, Jupiter, or Neptune looks positively primitive, and we can start discussing how much we want to invest in manned exploration of the inner Oort cloud. But that's basically what it will take: some kind of game-changing technology to make the task a whole lot easier.
I continue to think that the space program is valuable, and long for the days when Vicki and I can retire to our personal O'Neill colony in the sky. But fundamentally, we don't have a way of getting there from here. And in the meantime, there's important work that needs to be done planetside, first.
 Okay, an almost-five-year old me.