Celestial Land Grabs and the Demise of Science
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

January 26, 2004

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Okay, so I harbor a sneaking suspicion that the whole moon landing thing was a hoax. When I see President George W. Bush standing calmly before the American flag announcing a new era in moon and Mars exploration, I watch his lips move and imagine he's Captain Kirk, telling us they will go where no man has gone before.

But assuming it was not a hoax, some of Bush's rhetoric has been inspiring, filling us all with images of the great advances opening for mankind, as if travel to the moon and Mars were the apex of science and, therefore, humanity.

Certainly back when John F. Kennedy announced America's race to the moon it was. Sure it was about beating the Soviets but it was also about nation-building, a vast quest underpinned by the desire to make America the leading scientific nation in the world.

But this time around you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize things are a little different.

The announcement that NASA is to stop all servicing missions to the Hubble telescope is a perfect example. Not only is the telescope the finest in the world but it is non-profit and dedicated solely to science -- and by 2010 it will be little more than space junk.

Then there's the extensive investigation released last year on the state of science in Bush's America. Prepared by Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, the report, "Politics and Science - Investigating the State of Science Under the Bush Administration," charges the White House with misusing science to advance a conservative agenda.

Identifying more than 20 scientific issues, it details numerous instances of manipulation of the scientific process and suppression of findings that may upset an affected industry.

The report concludes that leading scientific journals are beginning to question the scientific integrity at federal agencies -- the same information most other Western countries rely on for the basis of their own standards. If even half of the report is true, the world of science that all of us rely on for information on subjects as diverse as global warming and drinking water to missile defense and agricultural pollution is corrupted by industry influence and high-level manipulation.

So what happened to science? Two words: faith and commerce. "Faith-based" is a phrase you'll be hearing more of. The most recent issue to gain coverage is the scheme in federally funded parks, such as the Grand Canyon, to place Christian scripture plaques in places of natural beauty.

It might seem like the odd behavior of a few fundamentalist park rangers, except for the fact that a creationist science publication denying the verifiable age of the canyon (millions of years) is on prominent display in Park Service stores, and the service has refused to display material debunking this anti-science.

Even sex is getting a new faith-based makeover with the news that performance measures for "abstinence education", something the Bush Administration finances, have been changed to make unproven abstinence-only programs appear effective in preventing pregnancy.

While faith-based social programs and faith-based public education (vouchers) are gaining acceptance how long can it be before faith-based science gains credibility? After all, nearly half of Americans believe the Earth was created some time in the past 10,000 years and the push for scientific creationism to be taught in public schools is growing.

On the business front, a report in the New York Times detailed numerous ambitious lunar business concepts, including transforming the moon into a giant power plant large enough to power the entire world, and mining for platinum. There are even "space commerce experts" who report half a dozen companies gearing up to take advantage of the new space obsession.

AlterNet reports Gregory Nemitz, the president of one entrant, TransOrbital, as saying all of these companies intend to return healthy profits from their projects.

It is as though faith (at least the conservative Christian version of it) and commerce were the perfect bed partners. You might not think this has much to do with the moon and Mars, but it does.

Where once we had an understanding that science was irrefutable, now we are waking up to the reality that like everything else it is a commodity, susceptible to the whims of the market and those who own that market.

This time around the moon and Mars will be little more than an enormous profit-driven ego trip, a landing pad for all that is warped and wrong with American society and its seemingly insatiable desire to impose that society on the rest of the world.

So if you are still holding that grainy 1969 image in your head and part of you still wants to believe in the power of the science of space exploration, it might be time to give it up.

The reach for the stars is no more than another land grab, another form of colonization, where the same group will benefit and the rest of world will be sold a finely tuned piece of PR, empty as a pocket, as Paul Simon once sang.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/ 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn

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