|The World Is Flat... And Green... And That Includes Space|
|Written by Jeff Krukin|
|Thursday, 10 January 2008|
"The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas Friedman was published in 2005 and released again with updates in 2006 and 2007. While his conclusions aren't universally accepted, there's no debating the worldwide impact of globalization and increasingly competitive commerce.
In his May 19, 2007 commencement address at Rensselaer he said: "The greatest challenge currently facing the United States is determining how to maintain a standard of living that can provide good jobs, health care, and basic needs to Americans while setting an example of a free society to the rest of the world. To remain the great nation it is today, the United States needs to remain at the forefront of technology and vigorously pursue solutions to help energize and educate a changing world."
In an August 2007 interview in Moment magazine he built on this by stating that "... to the extent that we shift the entire global debate to make 'green' part of the DNA of everything that we make, design, produce and build, we play to our strength. We create jobs that can't be outsourced."
And yet, with his understanding of the economic, scientific and technological challenges faced by the US, I find no indication that Mr. Friedman understands that the emerging commercial space industry (NewSpace) can become a major driver of the very same capabilities he has identified as crucial to the United States. If a person who earns his living researching, writing and speaking about such issues doesn't get it, how can space advocates expect the bulk of the public to see the true value of human space activity? Now is the time to embrace energy, resource and environmental concerns and connect them with space.
I wrote the following letter to Mr. Friedman about these concerns:
You expressed concern about attracting “first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world,” the low number of American students graduating with science and engineering degrees, and declining U.S. government investment in basic science and engineering research. It’s generally accepted that overcoming the complex challenges of the Apollo program greatly contributed to the American pre-eminence that we are in danger of losing today. I won’t bore you with a lengthy treatise on this, because it’s the same old arguments and the wrong way to support the President’s space initiative.
I believe the President has made it clear that an Apollo-style mission isn’t the way to proceed. Instead, his plan emphasizes two key approaches that differentiate it from the previous lunar program. First, an earth-orbit, and then earth-moon, infrastructure is to be developed in an evolutionary manner. Second, entrepreneurs and the private sector must perform the “heavy lifting” if we are to succeed, because only market forces can overcome the greatest obstacle: decreasing the cost of getting into orbit and beyond. In other words, it’s the journey that is supremely important, not merely the destinations.
Just as Apollo contributed greatly to American scientific and technological strength, so, too, will a new combined public-private sector initiative. As you pointed out in your Op-Ed, we are competing with nations such as China, India, and Japan… all forward looking and spacefaring nations. As they invest in the technology that is the foundation of their space programs, we must do so as well, with the added benefit of using our greatest competitive asset, our entrepreneurial space companies like SpaceX and XCOR. This is the value of the President’s space initiative, and this work will extend the American economy into orbit.
A typical argument against the initiative decries sending humans to the moon and Mars because robots can do the job more effectively. How ironic that shortly after the President’s announcement, the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit spent two weeks mentally hiccupping and twiddling its mechanical thumbs. The resuscitation of Spirit by human beings demonstrated that robots aren’t entirely self-sufficient. In fact, far too many robotic missions have failed because these splendid machines couldn’t overcome surprises created by human flaws. Had this trend continued with Spirit being reduced to its own tombstone, it would have further demonstrated that humans are vital to exploring space.
The fundamental issue has been forgotten as proponents of manned and robotic programs trip over themselves arguing about the best way to explore space. They’re missing the far greater picture, as are those who are simply against any space activity. The exploration of space is valuable in and of itself, but the most important reason for exploring space, the reason that robots alone simply don’t count, can be summed-up in one word: settlement. The President’s initiative is about more than exploration and science; it’s about extending the human presence throughout the solar system. It’s about putting down roots, and forever moving even further out. Even if science was the only reason to go, the best science is performed by onsite scientists with their instruments, not by onsite instruments without their scientists. But science isn’t the only, or even the best, reason to go. Survival and prosperity are the fundamental reasons, and these are worth any price.
What does space have to do with our survival and prosperity? If you think of space as a federal program, it’s difficult to answer this question. When you realize that space is a place, a place where we live… just as we live in our hometown, our country, and on Earth… the answers reveal themselves. Space is…
We must go into space for reasons that humans have historically gone elsewhere, to find resources and freedom, to create better lives. If humans didn’t leave home until all was well, all six billion of us would still be in Mesopotamia, crowded and miserable.
Lunar visionary Kraft Ehricke said it well in 1970: “While civilization is more than a high material living standard it is nevertheless based on material abundance. It does not thrive on abject poverty or in an atmosphere of resignation and hopelessness. Therefore, the end objectives of solar system exploration are social objectives, in the sense that they relate to or are dictated by present and future human needs.” With a ceaselessly growing global population requiring ever more resources, human survival and prosperity require not just the exploration of space, but also its settlement and development. It’s really that simple. The only question is how long we wait to begin in earnest. We can begin now, in partnership with other nations, or wait until we endure a few more wars over diminishing resources.
Perhaps without realizing it, you touched on this tangentially in your Op-Ed. Consider China and India, the two most populous nations in the world with a combined total of 2.3 billion people. Their economies are growing into 21st Century powerhouses that will require vast resources. How will the governments of these nations provide for their citizens? In 1941, the Empire of Japan used its military to expand throughout the Pacific and create the Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Why? Japan needed resources, such as rubber, tin, and oil. It attacked Pearl Harbor to keep the United States at bay.
Now imagine the year is 2031, and China’s energy consumption is the same as the entire world’s consumption today. Will China deploy its navy to seize the Spratley Islands and other resource-rich parts of Southeast Asia? Will Pearl Harbor be attacked again, only this it’s time destroyed by a Chinese nuclear strike? And what will India do, situated between the oil wealth of the Middle East and Southeast Asia? Like China, India is enhancing its military capabilities. Is conflict the only answer? Must Earth be the sole source of energy and other resources?
I realize that some view space as a pristine environment that must be protected from the ravages of humanity. Many environmentally conscious people want to protect space from being spoiled, just as they wish to keep Earth clean. This is commendable, but humans need resources to live. From where shall we get them? Which is best to protect, Earth, or small asteroids containing resources needed on Earth? Which is preferable, increasing our consumption of polluting fossil fuels, or developing the means to harness the Sun’s energy in orbit and transmit it to Earth? Which is the greater moral imperative, to whither in place and keep the solar system clean, or to spread life beyond Earth? If we choose the former, what a cosmic joke on us if we discover that life is already spread around the solar system.
Space, when considered with the possibilities of an open mind, is about our lives on Earth. Space offers a solution for energy independence and decreasing the use of fossil fuels. Space is a hotel, a college campus, a science lab, and yes, maybe a Wal-mart, in orbit and then on the moon. Space is nothing less than the ultimate economic growth engine for the entire world, and nothing more than another place for people to live, work, study, and play.
Regarding energy independence, just look up, day or night. With vision, you can see orbiting solar arrays beaming power to Earth and helium-3 extracted from the moon for use here in future fusion reactors. Do you think it can’t be done? Countless experts once believed trains, planes, and automobiles couldn’t be done. Somebody probably thought that about ships, too. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” The Wright brothers weren’t aerospace engineers, and look what they accomplished. Fortunately, humanity keeps producing men and women with transformational goals, and the chutzpah to proclaim wild ideas and take risks in the face of all the naysayers. That’s what human beings do… figure out how to overcome obstacles and accomplish a goal.
For decades, NASA’s been trying to figure it out… and failing miserably while wasting billions of our tax dollars and losing precious human lives. The biggest obstacle to the exploration, settlement, and development of space has been the high cost of getting to orbit. NASA has proven time and again that it cannot decrease this cost, despite numerous launch vehicle programs. This shouldn’t be surprising, for while our government provides many valuable services, it isn’t designed to lower the cost of products and services. This is the strength of the private sector, which until very recently has been hindered in its efforts to create a commercial space launch industry. Fortunately this is changing, as entrepreneurs have formed companies to create inexpensive launch services. Additionally, in March the House of Representatives passed an amendment (HR3752) to the Commercial Space Launch Act that supports the efforts of these and similar companies. And this month the Federal Aviation Administration has issued the first launch licenses for manned commercial spaceflight. The cost barrier is about to be assaulted by those most likely to succeed; new companies with outside-the-box ideas. This means space need not be just a tax-funded expense. Instead, it can become an extension of the American economy, a creator of new industries and jobs, and a generator of tax revenues. And while all this is happening, NASA can concentrate on what it does best; developing new technologies and pushing deeper into space as a true pioneer that paves the way for the rest of us.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” We have an optimistic and bountiful future to create, and success requires entrepreneurs, academia, and the government, rather than just another huge Federal contractor program like Apollo. Space is a place, not a program, and everybody gets to participate.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you.
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