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.
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:
- The New York Times on China’s success docking in space.
- From China, about their space programs
- Space.com talks about China’s moon probe in L2
Other interesting articles
- The Washington Times on NASA budget woes
- CNBC reviews some of the commercial space bright spots
- Parabolic Arc mentions that Brazil is tripling its space budget
Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Mayan December, is out now from Prime Books. For more information, see her website!