Space race #2

Dubya Bush wants to resume a space race, of sorts, with Mars as the ultimate target instead of the moon (although don’t fear, Luna-tics, there’s a goal for a moon base as well). As a good science fiction fan, I’d like to think that Dubya’s drive to space originates from scientific curiosity and a desire to populate the solar system. At the very least, I’d like to hope that the motivation for getting back Up There stems from a wish to jump-start the U.S. aerospace industry by shooting for a new goal that will fuel and inspire a new generation of innovation and creativity in U.S. aerospace and science.

But I just don’t think that’s the case. I think the reality of a Chinese space program and a backwards way of getting an anti-ballistic missile weapons system, coupled with election year desires to distract the American public from foreign and domestic policy has much, much more to do with Dubya’s reasons for going into space. Unfortunately, I fear that also means more of the same when it comes to dealing with development of space vehicles and programs-flashy, temperamental one-shot, one vehicle stuff instead of reusable workhorses in stages which run from ground to orbit, then orbit to other destinations. We’ll still see stuff that needs days and weeks of preparation for flight, instead of launch vehicles that can be prepped for flight quickly, in a matter of hours.

In other words, I just don’t think it’ll get done right. It’ll get done fast, but not good. It won’t be driven by a desire for a true presence in space, but by a need for ideological photo-ops for the sake of achievement.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a space junkie. I want to see us up there in space, exploring and settling. I don’t think that humans as a species do well without having some sort of new physical frontier to expand out to and redirect our focus from pounding in each other’s heads. I’m still a child of the Kennedy Era when we we’re gonna make it to the moon before the Russkies, by golly. I don’t support the argument that money spent on space would be better spent on social services, simply because the space budget in comparison to social services is relatively minor. Besides, it’s easy to argue that potential side-effects of increased investment in space will have positive effects upon the economy and associated technological advancements which end up benefiting a lot of people, including those served by government social services.

Others argue that we should limit space exploration to robots. Space is big, nasty and deadly. It costs a lot of money to make vehicles capable of protecting humans in space from radiation and osteoporosis, among other things. However, robots can’t convey to yet another generation just how fragile our home the Earth is in the Universe. Robots can’t fire the imaginations of kids who decide to study science because they, too, want to scuff their feet on the surface of Mars, or explore the Jovian moons. Robots don’t give nation-states the incentive to pool resources because no one country can effectively afford to invest in space exploration alone.

In short, I think we need the romance as well as the science of space exploration to push us humans off of our home planet and out into the solar system and beyond.

I just want us to do it in a way that makes sense with regard to safety, science and economics. That requires a long-term commitment to building up support systems for interplanetary excursions before launching our explorers into the wider void. Before we do that, lessee, that means we need to improve education so we have the folks to do the design and support work. That also means we need reliable manufacturing plants to build the stuff the engineers design. Which means we also need stable employment and political structures.

Hmm. Seems like a plan to me. At the very least, it beats flailing about looking for more countries to conquer. Not that I suspect Dubya thinks the same way I do. I want space stations, moon bases and stable, self-supporting interplanetary design, done with goals for long-term presence instead of quick one-shot photo-ops. I think Our President wants the latter.

Guess I can dream about it, though.