Machines and men were sent into space, and this sparked a new government agency, called NASA. Space was a new frontier, and virtually everyone was interested in exploring it. Over the years, the interest in space exploration has weakened, and NASA was almost terminated from existence, although there have been many advancements in it over that time. Space exploration should continue because it could help solve many problems on Earth, such as overpopulation and lack of resources.
However, the same can be said of the deep oceans. Actually, we know much more about the Moon and even about Mars than we know about the oceans.
Bymaps and globes depicting the complete lunar surface were produced. Much remains poorly understood about these phenomena, their relevance to the surrounding ecosystem, and the ways in which climate change will affect their continued existence.
Addressing these questions surpasses the importance of another Mars rover or a space observatory designed to answer highly specific questions of importance mainly to a few dedicated astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and select colleagues. Leave the people at home NASA has long favored human exploration, despite the fact that robots have become much more technologically advanced and that their one-way travel poses much lower costs and next to no risks compared to human missions.
NASA relentlessly hypes the bravery of the astronauts and the pioneering aspirations of all humanity despite a lack of evidence that these missions engender any more than a brief high for some.
Ocean exploration faces similar temptations. In short, it is no more reasonable to send aquanauts to explore the seafloor than it is to send astronauts to explore the surface of Mars.
Several space enthusiasts are seriously talking about creating human colonies on the Moon or, eventually, on Mars. Other space advocates envision using space elevators to ferry large numbers of people and supplies into space in the event of a catastrophic asteroid hitting the Earth.
NOAA also invested funding in a habitat called Aquarius built in by the Navy, although it has since abandoned this project. If anyone wants to use their private funds for such outlier projects, they surely should be free to proceed.
However, for public funds, priorities must be set. Much greater emphasis must be placed on preventing global calamities rather than on developing improbable means of housing and saving a few hundred or thousand people by sending them far into space or deep beneath the waves.
Reimagining NOAA These select illustrative examples should suffice to demonstrate the great promise of intensified ocean research, a heretofore unrealized promise. These studies and others reflect the tug-of-war that exists among various interest groups and social values.
Environmentalists and those concerned about global climate change, the destruction of ocean ecosystems, declines in biodiversity, overfishing, and oil spills clash with commercial groups and states more interested in extracting natural resources from the oceans, in harvesting fish, and utilizing the oceans for tourism.
NOAA is the obvious candidate, but it has been hampered by a lack of central authority and by the existence of many disparate programs, each of which has its own small group of congressional supporters with parochial interests.
The result is that NOAA has many supporters of its distinct little segments but too few supporters of its broad mission. It is hard to imagine the difficulty of pulling these pieces together—let alone consolidating the bewildering number of projects—under the best of circumstances.
Several administrators of NOAA have made significant strides in this regard and should be recognized for their work. However, Congress has saddled the agency with more than ocean-related laws that require the agency to promote what are often narrow and competing interests.
Moreover, NOAA is buried in the Department of Commerce, which itself is considered to be one of the weaker cabinet agencies. Moreover, NOAA is not the only federal agency that deals with the oceans.
There are presently ocean-relevant programs in more than 20 federal agencies—including NASA. For instance, the ocean exploration program that investigates deep ocean currents by using satellite technology to measure minute differences in elevation on the surface of the ocean is currently controlled by NASA, and much basic ocean science research has historically been supported by the Navy, which lost much of its interest in the subject since the end of the Cold War.
The Navy does continue to fund some ocean research, but at levels much lower than earlier. Many of these programs should be consolidated into a Department of Ocean Research and Exploration that would have the authority to do what NOAA has been prevented from doing: Setting priorities for research and exploration is always needed, but this is especially true in the present age of tight budgets.
It is clear that oceans are a little-studied but very promising area for much enhanced exploration.
More than moving a few billion dollars from the faraway planets to the nearby oceans is called for, however.
The United States needs an agency that can spearhead a major drive to explore the oceans—an agency that has yet to be envisioned and created. Share Cite this Article Etzioni, Amitai.
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