Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Space Program - America's Peak Era

Some people think that America's big claim to fame was that we won World War II. They think that established us as the pre-eminent military superpower on the planet which in turn gave us the lifestyle of privilege we have enjoyed for 60 years.
But that is wrong on several levels. First, WE didn't win it. The Allied Forces won it. We were just part of the winning team. Second, when Luke Skywalker said he was looking for a "Great Jedi Warrior". Yoda so eloquently said "Wars do not make one great.". Winning that war is what allowed us to survive, but it did not make us a "great" nation.
There are plenty of things that made us a good country and an interesting culture, but as far as I am concerned, there were six things that made us a great nation and worthy of note historically for future generations studying this period.

1) We invented mass production.
2) We built the Panama Canal which made global trade and supply routes economically viable
3) We invented Hollywood - the dream factory for the world
4) We invented the computer
5) We invented the internet
6) We built a space program that took us to the moon and back

There are other good things about Americans as a people, like our optimism, and our can-do attitude, and our willingness to accept risk and try things. But as a culture, the things that made us a great one worthy of historical note were mostly those ones above, in my opinion.
And of those, the space initiative was one of the biggest. We walked on another planet, and showed it to the world as we did it, and then came back safely to talk about it. Those were the best days of our country. That was our peak. The top of our game. We are still riding on the vapor trails of the coattails of that era.

Voyager I is the most distant man-made object from Earth. Earlier this year, Voyager I reached the edge of the space inhabited by our sun. The sun's gravitational influence and solar wind extend out about 8.7 billion miles into space. Voyager I has now reached the Termination Shock. It is that limit beyond which is considered interstellar space. The particles are more dense, but slower moving. Yes - space is NOT empty. Not at all. Within the heliosphere, there is a solar wind of material that shoots out from the sun at speeds of 700,000 to 1.5 million miles per hour. There have been sail model designs to hopefully allow spacecraft to use that for propulsion one day.
But Voyager I and II launched back in 1976. It's all mostly been smaller achievements in the space program since those heady days of 1969 to 1972 when NASA was sending men to the moon, and sending probes like Voyager into deep space to explore.

There is a misconception in the public mind. Some people think that space exploration is expensive and a waste of money. They are wrong. Generally speaking, WAR is expensive and a waste of money. Space, rather, is an investment for the future. Do you suppose that Christopher Columbus's expedition to sail around the world was an expensive waste of money? Was finding the Americas a waste of money?

Well that is what the space program is like. Before you can establish an outpost and a presence in a place, you at least have to find it and go there first.

Sure, space ships cost more than planes. Well, boats cost more than wagons, but it took boats to discover the Americas. And it takes spaceships to discover new worlds. You have to spend the money to get the big results.

Although, looking back, we find that for every dollar NASA spent on the space programs, America received back SEVEN dollars in revenue, from all the spinoff technologies. That's a pretty good return on investment.

But we will always have the accountants and people who are trying to be fiscally responsible trying to justify every dollar with immediate payback, etc.
I want to ask this question: WHY is it that we are willing to take a leap of faith to spend billions of dollars to go to war, but we will not take a leap of faith to spend even a quarter of the same money to explore and develop space?

Columbus was not the first from Europe to discover the Americas. The Vikings did it and even established a small village on Newfoundland a thousand years before him. But they came and stayed for a while, then went back - not willing to spend the resources to develop this new world. Boy, look what opportunities THEY missed out on!

We hoped that in going to the moon we were like Columbus, but I guess not. It seems we were just the Vikings. We went there, looked around, picked up a few souvenirs, and left again. Never to return.
The development of the moon and the planets, and eventually the stars will apparently belong to a greater culture than ours. One more powerful, more visionary, (... or maybe more desperate for natural resources....)

But not us. We are spiraling down into fiscal navel gazing. Every year, congress cuts the number of scientific grants by yet another 1,000 grants. All the European and Asian countries are now passing us by with ease. Open any science magazine and count the number of scientific discoveries made by American scientists. It's a smaller number every year. Most scientific accomplishments are now made by scientists from other countries. Britain. France. Canada. Germany, etc. Not the USA.

We have become the Ferengi. (Star Trek reference) Soon all our technology will be borrowed or bought from others who are more clever, more enterprising, more ingenious than us.
International admissions to US colleges went down over 55% last year because we are no longer the place to be. On an NPR show today they interviewed the authors of a new book on this very subject. We spend far more than anybody else in the world on education, but we end up being less educated. We seem to waste our time and money and resources. We are poorly focused. Our elementary schools are excellent and world leading, but our middle schools sink to middle-of-the-pack. Then our high schools are among the worst in all developed nations in the world. And our colleges can't get quality, knowledgeable people from the high school system. It is getting harder and harder for college level professors to be able to teach the newer students anything worthwhile.

I think it is because, as a culture, our focus is on parties and sports, and not on academics. The kids love the parties and the social aspects of school and focus on that. The schools themselves are FAR FAR FAR too intensely focused on sports in this country.

WAKE UP AMERICA!!!! Here's a clue: Having a winning football team does not help us compete and stay alive economically in a desperately competitive world. Outsourcing all our technology does not give us a better way of life. Focusing on sports does not make us smarter or better able to overcome the problems we face as a society such as lack of natural resources, finding alternate energy sources, etc.

We are losing ground fast. Granted, our ride on top couldn't last forever - it never does, but we are coming crashing down FAST.

Before the end of this decade China will be the new superpower in the world. And our military will not save us. Why? Several reasons, but here are two:
1) The military can only fight countries. It is designed to combat a standing army. Not terrorism, but yet our real threat is terrorism. So an organized army has become largely obsolete. We spend literally 52% of all money spent in the entire world by all countries on military. And it is now in the process of being rendered obsolete because of terrorism AND because of the next point ...
2) We are borrowing over 2 billion dollars a day from China, Korea, and Japan. They are our biggest creditors. If we were to try to attack China for example, they could simply pull the plug on our finances, and we would go broke immediately. We couldn't AFFORD to attack them in any sustained manner. We are using THEIR money to keep this war in Iraq going. And that has cost us almost 900 billion dollars so far. Soon it will be a trillion dollars. (A trillion dollars is a stack of 1,000 bills reaching 68 miles high. From the ground to outer space.)

We literally cannot survive without China's money now. Likewise they need us to keep buying their products, so we are locked into a co-dependent relationship. We survive by eating each other. They need us, we need them. But in the long run, they win. As the European market continues to grow and expand (it's already FAR larger than ours is now), China can sell their goods there. So they have an alternative market to sell to, but we don't have an alternative source of funding.

We need cheap money and cheap energy to keep going and continue living as we have over the past few decades. Those supplies are quickly running out, and therefore this imbalance cannot continue forever. My little bit of wisdom suggests that anything that cannot continue forever, will eventually stop.

So this ride will come to an end. Soon. Watch and see.

What does all this have to do with space? Well many of our problems would be greatly lessened if we found other sources of natural resources. 2005 is the year of peak production for crude oil reserves globally. From here on out, oil production will slow every year. We've literally used up more than half of all the world's oil resources, and now we are going to be getting into the dregs. The more expensive 'dirty' oil sources. Shale, Oil sands, etc. are much more expensive and difficult to get and process. That affects everything in our culture, because our physical infrastructure is entirely based upon the assumption of cheap energy forever. It turns out that wasn't such a good bet.

If we find a new planet, we begin to branch out. We reach new sources of energy. It is the next "Americas". The next frontier of expansion. We will develop new technologies as spinoffs in building the technology to get out there, even. In reaching out, we learn, we grow, we evolve.

It is our destiny as a species, I am sure. I just wish it could have been our destiny as a country.

I wonder how long it will take before the right person of vision comes along to lead us there. Someone who is more than an accountant. More than a politician. Someone who can have a vision big enough for a whole world - and then sell it.

Too bad I can't run for president! (laugh with me here....)


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