As The Observer writes this on Tuesday morning, one of the greatest Observational opportunities in a generation is hurtling through space and time to make its impression upon the third planet from the sun sometime this evening. Well, insofar as such subjective designations have any meaning when nonterrestrial matters are concerned — "evening" and "night" and other such functions of Earth-shadow all start to seem pretty petty in the context of space. Sometime in the next 12 hours, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will reach a frozen trans-Neptunian object we decided in the 1930s we'd call Pluto, the consummation of a 9-and-a-half year journey across 3 billion miles. And we're going to get to see it.
The idea that a species of such demonstrably weak-willed, violence-prone, sex-crazed primates could get their shit together enough to send anything at all into outer space seems unbelievable. Pics or it didn't happen. But there they are, indelible images from a half-century of exploration: Mariner, Viking, Voyager, the Mars rovers, the Philae lander that thunked down on a comet last fall. And now, New Horizons. The photos are only the tip of a vast iceberg of data returned to us by the little burbling robot children we've sent out to explore and measure the solar system on behalf of our soft, fleshy selves, and with each generation of craft we learn more and more. That Jupiter's moon Europa holds a sea of liquid water vaster than all the oceans of Earth, locked beneath an icy crust and kept unfrozen by the tidal pull of its parent planet. That beneath the opaque cloud ceilings of Titan, a moon of Saturn, there are lakes of hydrocarbons and an entire atmospheric "methane cycle" of evaporation, condensation and precipitation — like the Earth's water cycle, but occurring at a temperature of around -290 degrees Fahrenheit. Miracle after miracle, uncovered through the Promethean gifts of science.
Whoops, hold up. Ugh. That right there is the problem with getting caught up in romance. One minute you're learning about a beautiful thing; the next, you're waxing grandiloquent with such BS phrases as "the Promethean gifts of science" or "the inky black shores of the cosmos." Or worse, Manifest Destiny-laden metaphors about intrepid explorers sighting the shores of the New World — an event which, let's not forget, begot 500+ years' worth of genocide, plague, rape and chattel slavery in this blood-soaked hemisphere. Grandiloquent waxing is always suspicious, be it over science or God, liberty or equality, local food, punk rock, Sarah Palin's Real America, or whatever.
And that brings us to the ultimate killjoy question when it comes to NASA: Ehhhhh, but what about the costs? The price tag for New Horizons is going to run in the neighborhood of $700 million of public money. It's honestly a shoestring budget, considering the scope of the mission, and damn it's going to be thrilling to see Pluto, but still ... that'd pay for an awful lot of pre-K teachers, malarial drugs or solar panels.
Of course, you can play that game all day. At $700 million, New Horizons will cost about $100 million less than the cash Americans collectively shelled out for Girl Scout cookies last year. NASA's budget of $18 billion is about 1/28th the size of what the Department of Defense is asking for FY 2015 ($496 billion). Still, if The Observer were sitting in front of $700 million in cash, with the Pluto lobby on one hand and a Syrian refugee camp on the other, we'd have to concede that the population of Pluto can probably cope just fine without us.
Thankfully, we're not. And anyway, if The Observer had been in charge of NASA from the birth of the space program, we probably would have blown our budget launching truckloads of basketballs and cantaloupes into orbit, perfectly content with the sheer awe factor of the concept of spaceflight itself. Briefings to Cold War-era Congressional oversight committees would have read something like, "They're actually up there! Just floating around! How nuts is that, senators?" The lesson here, as usual, is that it's fortunate for everyone that The Observer isn't in charge of much of anything.