Blastoff’ is not a brand of vodka.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Cre­ative mas­sive tax incen­tives for the indus­try until the com­mer­cial via­bil­i­ty of Earth orbit was at a fea­si­ble ini­tial cap­i­tal invest­ment thresh­old.
  3. 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.

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