In 1997, U.S. citizens were polled about how much of the federal budget they thought went to support the space program.
The poll respondents thought that the space program made up about 20 percent of the federal budget.
The actual number? Less than one percent. And, with recent cuts, I'd guess it's probably lower than that today.
I thought about that on Sunday night -- actually, very early Monday morning -- as I stayed up to watch the landing of NASA's "Curiosity" rover on Mars.
Experts have been telling us for years about the need to get kids more interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Earlier this year, I covered the STEM camps that Shelbyville's own Billy Hix conducts each summer.
If we can't increase America's supply of scientists and engineers, we risk losing even more of our technological lead to other nations -- and that means losing jobs, and economic power, and quality of life.
Space program skeptics -- the kind of people who mistakenly think the space program is a huge drain on the budget -- tend to ask what possible benefit we gain from it.
There are several different answers to that question.
For one thing, I think pure science of any kind is always worthwhile, even though we may not realize at the time it's taking place how it might be exploited in the future. I'm in favor of spending on pure science whether it's space-related or not.
It's easy to make fun of scientific studies.
The late William Proxmire, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, used to issue his "Golden Fleece" awards for what he considered wasteful government spending, and it was easy for Proxmire, or his speechwriters, to find some grant-funded scientific study, reduce it to its most absurd description, and then mock it for political gain. One hundred thousand dollars for a study on why frogs blink! Never mind that knowledge about animal physiology can sometimes be used to extrapolate human physiology, and ultimately lead to advanced medical knowledge. The truth is often too complicated to be used as a political weapon, so it has to be twisted into half-truth.
Beyond the pure-science element, the space program has led to numerous examples of spinoff technology that have improved our lives and our economy. Space travel poses many challenges, and forces engineers to think outside the box when designing systems, materials and equipment. That leads to improvements in technology that may be useful for other purposes and products. How much slower would the development of computer technology have been without the Apollo program? And how much has computer technology changed all our lives?
I think one of the key reasons that the space program is so important goes back to that STEM issue. I accompanied Billy and one of his STEM camps to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., and you could see in their eyes what was in my eyes and the eyes of my classmates when I was growing up, during the Apollo years -- a sense of wonder and curiosity. If nothing else, the space program is one of the leading motivators for kids to think about scientific and technical careers.
The actual scientific research being done by Curiosity could tell us whether or not microbial life has ever existed on Mars. And that could help us better understand the processes by which life grew and developed here on our own planet.
America has been a country of exploration and expansion, and that hopeful attitude has benefitted our nation in many ways. We need to return to and honor that heritage, through a renewed emphasis on looking up. We can no longer "Go West, young man," but there are still horizons left to conquer.
The question is, can we do it? We are so fractured, so polarized, so self-centered. I realize that America's support of the Apollo program was, in part, due to its "space race" aspect. We feared the Russians, had been embarrassed by their early conquest of Earth orbit, and President Kennedy was able to give us a challenge that made getting to the moon by 1969 seem like the ultimate expression of American idealism.
Maybe there's no way to recreate that national unity in the era of talk radio and screechy Facebook posts. Maybe the space race was lightning in a bottle and we won't be able to truly pick up where we left off for another century or two, if we can survive that long. Maybe it will be the Chinese, or the European Union, which will have the guts and willpower to send men to Mars.
But I sure don't want to think that. I want to believe our greatest days are still ahead of us.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.