[Viewpoint] Deep space thinking

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[Viewpoint] Deep space thinking

NASA and I have a long and troubled love affair. Like many 8-year-old boys, I dreamed of being an astronaut. I spent hours a day on the family PC, reading articles about each of the Apollo missions, watching videos about our unmanned trips to other planets and looking wide-eyed at those awesome photographs of the furthest reaches of the universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

My parents even bought me a CD copy of Carl Sagan’s “golden record” sent out with the Voyager probes. I listened to it over and over, and I have no doubt that the 55 different languages on it were the beginning of my fascination with foreign tongues.

Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin - these men were like modern demigods, reminding me of the ancient Greek mythological heroes I read about in school, daring to force their way into the heavens with nothing but courage and a few inches of metal to protect them.

Of course, when I grew up I learned that those few inches of metal - and the computers and rockets that carry them into space - came at a cost. In today’s money, the United States spent somewhere between $120 billion and $150 billion on the Apollo program. A total of $145 billion had been spent on the American space shuttle as of 2005, and assuming NASA’s estimate of $450 million per mission is correct, almost $6 billion more has been spent on the 13 shuttle missions flown since.

NASA apologists like to remind people of the contributions manned space travel has made to imaging technologies, materials science and pens that you can write with upside down. But surely all that money would be more efficiently spent tackling other problems we endure. And we certainly have a lot demanding our attention: poverty, AIDS, cancer, drug-resistant tuberculosis - heck, a few hundred billion dollars would help Obama’s health care plan get off the ground, too.

The sad fact is that manned space flights, and most unmanned missions, too, are a huge waste of money that could be spent on more sensible and compassionate enterprises.

That said, I cannot keep from cheering any attempt to go where no one has gone before, just as I was drawn to the television on Tuesday to watch Naro-1 lift off.

The old family PC also contained at least a dozen black-and-white videos of failed American rockets, the most memorable the Vanguard TV3, the would-be first American satellite in space, which in December 1957 got just four feet off the pad before falling, its fuel tanks erupting into a huge fireball. At the height of the Cold War this was an international embarrassment made even more acute since the Soviet Union had launched its second satellite a month earlier.

Like those Navy scientists who watched their hard work burn up, everyone at the Naro Space Center must be bitterly disappointed that their satellite did not make it into its expected orbit. But they can take comfort in that they are not alone. In space flight, most first attempts fail. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time here, it’s that once Korea sets its mind to do something, it doesn’t quit. So I am sure that if the Naro team tries again, they will succeed.

The question is, should they?

I will not argue that Korea should abandon its space program. That simply wouldn’t be fair. And, regardless of whether one believes they are necessary, there are undeniable military benefits to having the ability to launch one’s own rockets.

But if Korea really intends to join the top tier of space exploration, it needs to think on a larger scale.

Though putting one into orbit is an impressive (and difficult) feat, hundreds of artificial satellites already crowd the space around our blue-green home, and simply doing it again doesn’t exactly break new ground for humankind.

So why not join an international effort to return to the moon - or, even better, to travel to Mars?

Though of course it can’t compare with the glamour of carrying out the entire project on one’s own, there is other prestige to be had in being part of a scientific endeavor unlike any in human history. A country’s unique piece of the project can be a great opportunity for national branding in and of itself. Take the robotic arm on the space shuttle, for example. Developed by the Canadian firm SPAR Aerospace, the spindly apparatus is used to deploy satellites and other equipment from the American space shuttle’s cargo bay. Also called the “Canadarm,” it bears the maple leaf flag and the name “Canada” in large, friendly letters. It’s still one of the only products that I can be sure Canada makes (besides maple syrup and totem poles, naturally).

As a foreign resident here I know that Korea makes brilliant machines. I use Samsung memory in my computer, my television is made by LG, and Korea’s cellular phones and Internet infrastructure never cease to amaze me. But none of these products bear the Taegukgi, or Korean national flag, and most of my fellow Americans have no idea they were made here. (In all honesty, most probably think they came from Japan.)

Prominent Korean participation in an international space program could change all that. Just think of it: hundreds of square feet of solar cells, gracefully extending against the stars to power the first earthling visitors to another planet emblazoned with a Korean flag, or perhaps even a Korean on the moon or Mars itself.

Surely the hearts of Koreans would swell with pride at such a sight - and the 8-year-old inside all of us would look on in awe.

*The writer is a deputy editor at the JoongAng Daily. He can be reached at bapplegate@gmail.com

by Ben Applegate

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