A month ago the Space Shuttle launched (I know I’m late, but I’ve thought about this a lot) and I was pleased to be able to watch it on television. It kind of disgusted me how as soon as the thing failed to explode, every news channel that had been covering the launch (and every news channel was) switched to something else with more promise for the sensational. Is that the crown jewel of our civilization’s accomplishments? Is this where John Kennedy imagined we would be after he promised the moon within a decade — and got it — over four decades ago? I find it hard to understand why the space program has suffered so much in this country. It helped me understand this moment in history when I compared it to something Ron Cliff taught me about Chinese seafaring explorers in the 15th century. The Chinese had developed the best nautical technology in the world and for a short period of time, constructed massive junks to trade wares with peoples all across the Indian Ocean to their west. China was poised to become the trading and colonial powerhouse that Spain was to become a century later. But after peaking in the early 1400s, sailing from China was outlawed on pain of death. What happened? Xenophobia and conservatism at home prevented what might have been. Instead of looking outward, China looked inward and centuries later fell under the imperialist heel itself.
The comparison to modern events I find to be easy to draw. A forward thinking president helps put us on the path to explore other worlds. We have some very early success, and look ready to move on. Then, our exploration fizzles and goes nowhere for a while. The danger is not that space won’t get explored — I’m sure that it will in time — the question is who will be the ones to do it if we do not? Ironically enough, the Chinese arguably have the most aggressive space program in the world right now. While we are wringing our hands about chunks of foam killing our astronauts, China’s been investing billions — and with encouraging success.
My suggestions for an aggressive space program:
- Add lots of money. That’s a politically unpopular thing I realize, but if they were able to sell the American people the joke of a pretense to invade Iraq, they can marshal public opinion skyward as well. If half the billions we were spending in Iraq went to the space program, we would be able to begin to build an infrastructure that would make it easier and cheaper to get to space. Creating that infrastructure is very expensive on the short term, but without lowering the per-pound cost of getting into orbit by massively increasing our capacity, space will always be distant and expensive.
- Creative massive tax incentives for the industry until the commercial viability of Earth orbit was at a feasible initial capital investment threshold.
- Make it again an issue of national pride. Portray America’s space legacy as our gift to the world and to history, telling the world we would rather be astronauts then warriors.
Until it enters the political debate, there’s no future in this. The main issue is budgetary I beleive, and the feeling that there is no material gain possible. I think that any significant economic gain would have a lag time of several election cycles, and hence may not be that hot-button issue that gets highlighted so often. I don’t believe that there is any political debate over the program other than what fiscal conservatives would say. So it would seem to be a winner for somebody someday… just play that card, eh? I’m growing allergic to gravity.