Long Term and Long Distance Thinking

Brenda Cooper @ 23-11-2011

Last month, I wrote about the government. I asserted that we need to get business interests out of government or we’ll keep making decisions based on next quarter’s profits instead of the health of the next decade. This month, I want to talk about a whole industry that seems to be falling victim to short-term thinking, at least in America and Europe.

Space.

I recently read a New York Times essay by Christopher Drew on why students drop out of science and engineering programs. The essay concludes with a student who notes thattheychose science at three years old, because they dreamed of becoming an astronaut, of being part of the space program. At one time, engineering grads stood a good chance of working at JPL or NASA. Becoming an astronaut was hard, but not impossible (NASA is still recruiting, although it’s hard to say what new astronauts might fly – there may be nothing American that can make it out of the atmosphere with a person on board).

We’re in danger of losing American ascendency in near-earth space. Not only have we parked our shuttles, but I’m not convinced we have a great plan to replace them, or to get to Mars, or really to do much of anything with manned space exploration.

There are bright spots. Tech-gurus turned space champions like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos may keep us moving forward in commercial space. Orbital Sciences is still designing rockets. We even have a fairly new entrant – Naveen Jain of Intellus fame is talking about mining the moon, and chasing after the Google Lunar X-Prize. That’s good. I’m rooting for them all. But commercial space dollars are likely to chase profits and not the pure science of trips to Mars.

There are other governments funding space programs these days. If it weren’t for the oldest serious player, Russia, the ISS would be abandoned. China can now launch vehicles into orbit and perform docking maneuvers. Brazil is tripling funding for its space program. All of this spending still doesn’t equal ours, but these other countries have a trajectory of rising spending and national interest in space, while in America, spending and political interest in space are both falling.

Another point from my essay last month was that we need world governance on certain issues like the environment. I’ve always been very careful about word choice when I say this. I don’t want world government. But if we give up our power in space and another government takes that power, then we’re at risk, especially if that government is not a democracy.I don’t want Chinese satellites and space weapons to outmatch ours. I believe war is evil, but defense is necessary. And from a defense perspective, giving ground in space is short-sighted. While we still have space weapons money, I’m convinced that losing the edge in manned space will cost us at least some of our edge in space weapons.

Lastly, but not least, humanity needs hopes and dreams, adventure and exploration. Space programs provide that. I — and almost every other science fiction writer and reader around the world — know deep in my soul that the future for mankind includes space travel. I may be disappointed that it’s not going as fast as I want it to (there are rather real engineering problems out there, and perhaps some physics we don’t understand yet– and some likely severe biological limitations). I may wish we already had bases on the moon, but I’m not ready to give up. It would be a great place for some tax dollars to go. This is an industry that needs to be in the public dialogue, to have government as well as private funding, and to be part of our conversation about the long-term future.

On his space explorers site, Naveen Jain says, “Thanks to the brave, ultra-smart, and outside of the box thinking pioneers of our space program, our technology has advanced exponentially. Space exploration has given birth to whole new industries, generating a wealth that dwarfs NASA’s budget.”

We should make sure that our human future in space doesn’t fall victim to the current-quarter bottom-line thinking that has infested our governments the last few decades.

As always, I’d love to hear people’s comments.

If you want to do your own research, here are a few of the websites I visited as I thought about this piece. You might find the following sites interesting, especially when thinking about them together.

Articles on China’s space programs:

 

Other interesting articles

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Mayan December, is out now from Prime Books. For more information, see her website!

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4 Responses to “Long Term and Long Distance Thinking”

  1. Jerico says:

    I think we need a concerted effort by those in the space industry to illustrate a major selling point of manned and unmanned space exploitation: it’s ability to help with terrestrial problems.

    The space program’s most significant achievements, for the majority of humanity, had nothing to do with the moon or probes to the outer planets or even space telescopes. It was satellites looking down, providing data on climate change, military movements, archaelogy, sending radio waves to carry positional data, relay cell phone transmission, and so on.

    Expenditures in space should be seen for what they really are: a combination stimulus package for basic science and a swords to plow shares scheme for heavy military industrial organizations, with a big helping of unexpected consequences for socioeconomic development.

    Space enthusiasts have let themselves go with moral imperatives about hopes and dreams when they should be going with ‘we need a platform to deflect inbound asteroids and solar panels in orbit.’ There are good, practical reasons to be in the near earth system, from power generation to ecofriendly resource acquisition. We’re just not doing a good job framing the debate.

    As an aside, the death of the shuttle is probably the best thing to happen to space exploration/exploitation in recent memory.

  2. Khannea Suntzu says:

    I have always insisted space isn’t merely an amazing place – it is the next step in industrial, scientific, cultural or plain human civilization development.

    As far as I am concerned we are squandering our chances as a stellar species. We may actually irreversibly wasting our trump cards. FUFAE = Fucked up for all eternity.

    And do I care? No. I don’t. I do not benefit much, other than being regarded as just another disability nobody ‘who just takes up space’. I will be dead in a few decades, and won’t have to experience this total planetary clusterfuck melting down in HDR. What’ll I care it will all turn in to a local franchise of Dante?

    I Tried making a few suggestions here and there, but most people are more interested in nacho hats and Nascar.

  3. nate says:

    I believe that describing space as the “next step” ignores a lot of next steps. Next steps are where the value-to-cost ratio is the best. Exploitation of space and other planets is much more of a final step.

    If there wasn’t an opportunity cost involved in pursuing space exploration, you can bet your ass that people would be pursuing it like crazy. Unfortunately, government spending is always going to involve rationing. When you spend money on one thing, you take it away from another (yes, that impacts people’s lives, and sometimes it’s a part of what ends people’s lives).

    Space exploration holds a special place in the hearts of many (and that’s why you see private efforts: it’s almost entirely a hobby, rather than a viable business). Unfortunately, the cost of exploring space is extraordinarily high. From where do we take money to increase funding for space exploration? From other research, to fund space research? From defense, to fund space-based defense platforms? It’s just not a good trade-off.

    For a long time, dollars devoted to alternative energy will be a better way of dealing with environmental concerns than dollars devoted to off-planet colonies. Dollars devoted to submarines will be more effective than dollars devoted to star wars. Yes, planetary defenses will even be a more effective method of diverting potentially dangerous asteroids than space platforms will be.

    In the forseeable future, space-based resources (solar power, big rocks, an infinitely large ‘landfill’) are just going to be counterproductive. We’ll use way more resources in launch than we’ll ever be able to recover. There are valuable reasons to be in space, but then, those are the reasons that we are in space. Satellite business is booming.

    This isn’t all bad news for technofetishists. As we learn more, some dreams recede while others approach. We may never live to see Heinlein’s fantasies materialize, but we just might live long enough to see some of Gibson’s.

  4. Ivona Poyntz says:

    Governments need incentives to plow money into space exploration: wheres the ROI? The cold was was a fantastic incentive, after it was getting the sattelites out there for commercial/military purposes. So, someone needs to think up a great reason why we still need to be going out there: