I woke up on Saturday, Feb. 1 to the news that the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated upon its re-entry, breaking up 39 miles over Texas.
All seven crewmembers were killed.
I stared at the television in disbelief, yet the scene was all too familiar.
Images of the Challenger explosion, long forgotten, suddenly flashed before me.
I was just 5 years old.
I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now.
I remember asking my mother where they were going.
“Space,” she said.
“What for?” I wanted to know.
She had trouble answering.
After the Columbia disaster, President Bush mourned the tragic loss of life with the nation.
Clergymen across America led prayers for the astronauts and their families.
But there was no mention of the homeless who died of cold and hunger that weekend.
Not a prayer was said for those who fell victim to incurable diseases like cancer or AIDS.
According to Cancer Charities, an average of 1,512 people succumb to cancer each day.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that 41 Americans die daily from AIDS.
And countless more people die homeless on America’s streets, and are dealt with by authorities only once they are dead.
These tragedies may not be as visible as the explosion of a shuttle, but that’s only because we aren’t looking.
This year, NASA’s budget is a whopping $15.5 billion.
This is virtually the same amount ($16 billion) that has been earmarked for domestic AIDS prevention and treatment.
Imagine how much more could be done with AIDS research if the funding was doubled.
Picture the privately funded $107 billion spent annually on cancer care in this country partially subsidized by this new government windfall.
Similarly, imagine how far $15.5 billion could go toward feeding and sheltering the more than 330,000 people classified as homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
If the space program was halted tomorrow, the United States could spend $46,970 per person on housing, job training, child-care and health treatments to move the homeless towards self-sufficiency.
In the cost-benefit analysis, it is clear that the money spent on the space program can be better used.
In its 50-year history, what do we have to show for the trillions of dollars spent on space exploration?
Using the 2001 dollar as the standard, the Apollo program alone cost $293 billion – a hefty price to simply beat the Russians.
If our nation is so egocentric and hell-bent on proving our superiority, we can do so through other avenues, like the Olympics.
Or instead, let’s prove our greatness by being the most progressive nation and giving hope to all our people.
Sadly, the space program is nothing more than an example of our imperialistic tendencies.
It seems that the plan is to build a McDonald’s on every planet; they’re already everywhere else.
Frank Joyce, writing in the Fifth Estate, had this to say in 1969 about the lunar landing: “Men are going to the moon because this social system does not allow them to think of anything better to do with the money they have accumulated. Perhaps it is a good thing since the only other thing they have decided to spend the money on seems to be the War against the World, especially in Vietnam (read Iraq).”
Thirty-four years later, nothing has changed.
One day, I asked Uncle Sam why so many people suffered in a country so rich?
“What for?” I wanted to know.
He had trouble answering.
Jesse Chadderdon can be reached at email@example.com.