We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Future of American Space Exploration

Macro level technological improvement as a whole has stagnated, not just NASA. America's decline from the peak of industrial capitalism in 1970s only partially explains current state of the space program. 

The 40th anniversary of the moon landing brings to attention the general macro level technological stagnation that occurred in the West since the 1970s. Lack of further human expansion in deep space corresponds neatly to the lack of new mega projects in United States as well as other economically powerful nations. American government didn't just give up on building lunar bases and ISS type docking platforms in the 70s and 80s when technology more than allowed for it. It also gave up on attempts at provision of mass affordable housing (through utilization of best conceptual design research and recommendations), further exploration of increasingly cheap and speedy transcontinental travel, new mega canal/highway/rail/tunnel/bridge systems as well as concentrated effort to make use of the earth's oceans for national and global betterment. The national GDP since the 1950s ( when United States emulated the autobahn with the Interstate highway Act of 1956) has risen exponentially whereas the will to engage in grand projects increasingly stagnated.

Media outlets like to say that continued space expansion became too expensive and superfluous since Soviet Union's abandonment of its lunar program. How would they explain abandonment of major efforts to make supersonic travel safe and widely used or to link up NATO space with high speed rail networks? Of course there are ready explanations from structural economic perspectives. Soviets passed their industrial economic peak in the 60s while the American civilizational peak (with similar subsequent decline) was in the early 1970s. That explanation would also explain the physical inability to construct impressively at home towards the end of the 20th century. Medium Western powers such as England, Germany, and France all saw stagnation in the 1970s after the heady days of postwar consumer driven booms.

This tangible explanation does not explain the loss of creative will among world's governments. The ancient desire towards national greatness (that China so readily demonstrates these days) has left the West along with ambitions of lunar settlements. Western oligarchs and adventurous playboys did not adequately follow their nationalist predecessors in quests for glory. It was enough for them to do money speculation in a personal playground that is the globalizing world.

Sure, they emulated the previous tycoons in terms of support of militarism and financially parasitic existence (from 1870s to 1950s) but not as much in terms of daring stunts. The decades since the 1970s did not really see the equivalents of Howard Hughes ( basis for Scorsese's The Aviator), Thomas Edison, or Andrew Carnegie. Only militarism and mass financial manipulation on a global scale remained after some cosmetic modification.

We didn't see Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or George Soros trying to develop affordable flying transport, trying to get support to turn world's deserts into new farmland, or similar efforts towards awe inspiring historical milestones. Such construction was delegated to the needs of corporate shareholders and governments under ceaseless ideologically free market pressure. The trend continued even after the maximum income tax on the rich went from 70-80% in the 1950s-1960s to 35% today. American government had less resources to spend by not taxing the rich sufficiently and the rich themselves became less willing to engage in tangible glory seeking construction and development.

To be fair, United States has a lot of restrictions on private development and exploration of space. The government was also not proactive in encouraging private competitions towards technological milestones through awarding prizes. Only half a century after first manned flights did we start hearing about things like the Ansari X Prize (and even then from private pockets) to stimulate development of cheap private vehicles capable of reaching the orbit. The tax payer funded awards mostly went towards less inspiring new weapon systems. The sheer material benefits that space exploration spin off technology gives to humanity are undeniable. Thus, lack of sufficiently concentrated state effort to develop new ways for humans to get around and live (or actively encourage private development) is an irresponsible betrayal of national interest.

It will take major competition from non-western nations and public national humiliations to get political elites to exert themselves again. The days of economic tycoons are not over and as long as capitalism remains there will be cowboy trailblazers in various parts of the world. We've seen the recent rapid construction of artificial resort islands in Dubai, the scores of skyscrapers in Asia that overshadow the Sears Towers, and some Russian oligarchs actively thinking of space tourism to compliment their industrial empires. Besides billing American astronauts over 50 million dollars per ticket to space when the shuttle is retired, the Russian Space Agency is actively thinking of salvaging its parts of the International Space Station to make a new space platform as well as actively collaborating with Europe and China. The technologically advanced South Korea has recently completed their first spaceport. Beijing for it's part, besides having the national excitement and pride in its space program, also has followed George Bush in terms of stating desire to mine the lunar surface for valuable Helium 3 (which is much more plentiful on the moon than earth). Perhaps a profit motive (or an illusion of one) is just what is needed. The looming prospect of not having access to space for years without Russian support doesn't seem to be nudging United States any.

Things are coming together in such a way that a new leap into space is imminent even amidst a severe international crisis in market capitalism. The tangible material benefits are endless. For example there is potential for hundreds of megabytes per second satellite based broadband, new building materials and transportation methods, and popular psychological uplift that humanity is moving ahead instead of stagnating. Western societies need competitive shock treatment and severe humiliations first in order for movement in the right direction to start happening. Then maybe we can start also seeing actual mass improvements on the ground as well as in space. All it takes is to tax the top earners as they were after World War 1 and WW 2, transfer material funds from the military to NASA, and prod the public into contributing meaningfully with substantial incentives.

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