Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lessons from Easter Island

When European explorers first reached the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday in the year 1722, they found impoverished islanders amid huge and impressive statues. The islanders had little memory of how the statues had been erected, and by whom. The island was completely bereft of trees, the occupants had endured decades of famine, disease and civil wars. The Dutch who landed there found a microcosm of civilization in crisis. Now many centuries later the story of what transpired there is clear; Humans reached the islands by ocean going canoes around 300 AD. At the time the island was heavily forested and had rich resources. A vibrant culture arose there, developing a system of writing and erecting the now familiar statues. A caste system arose, breaking into clans.The island population increased, the resources were greatly reduced. Clans began to war over the remaining resources, eventually all the trees were cut, and the islanders could no longer manufacture canoes. They were stranded on an island thousands of miles out in the Pacific, with little food and with no way to escape.
We are in much the same predicament now on our island, Earth. We are running out of cheap fossil fuels. Both the European Union and the United States are now in the shadow of a rare Earth minerals shortage. Globally, a diminished supply of fresh water will soon be a flash point for wars and regional disputes (in fact it already is).
In space, there are almost limitless resources in the asteroid belt and outer solar system. Just this week it was announced that the moon has more water than the Sahara desert locked up in permanently shadowed impact craters near the lunar poles. This is a tremendous discovery for the possible establishment of a permanent presence there. From water you can make oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. The moon also is rich in many of the materials for building solar panels, there is gold, titanium, and aluminum in abundance.
The question is, will we create an adequate space faring infrastructure to go out there and utilize these resources before we run out of them here on Earth? Will we fail to build our canoes before we run out of trees? Is our future out among the stars, or here on Earth where we will kill each other in increasing frequency over dwindling food and water? Next week the shuttle Discovery launches for the last time. We need to get serious about space before it is too late.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The fork in the road

The space shuttle program, after almost 30 years of operation, is nearing its end. In June of this year, Texas based United Space Alliance laid off nearly 1400 workers in preparation for the programs demise. These were for the most part, good paying jobs, adding insult to injury to an already reeling economy. The shuttle program accomplished tremendous feats, sending probes to the planets, orbiting the Hubble space telescope, launching satellites, and building the worlds first international space station. Some would say this was achieved at great cost, both monetarily, and in the lives lost of workers and astronauts who died on Challenger and Columbia. But the road to space WILL be costly in both lives and funding. Some will say its not worth it. Some will say we cannot go on without it. I am in the latter camp.
First of all, the return on money spent in the space program is an astonishing 33 percent. That is to say, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the return in technology spin offs, etc, is 33 dollars. Try to find that rate of return in any investment on Wall Street. I wont go to the trouble to list all the things we take for granted that have their roots in the space program, like computers, integrated circuits, solar panels, safer air travel, etc. Not to mention the 18000 jobs for NASA alone, and the thousands more who work for dozens of subcontractors (of which I am one). All in all, it is safe to say that our nations space program is a win win situation.
This is the point where the following statement enters the frey: We could use this money to better ends, like housing for the poor, medical research, and education. It is a valid rationale. But here is food for thought. The 2010 NASA budget is approximately 18 billion dollars. A large sum of money. But we spend 31 billion on tobacco products, 58 billion on alcohol consumption, 80 billion on illegal drugs, and 586 billion on gambling. We spend another 250 billion on treatments for the ailments I just mentioned. One could argue that 18 billion to explore our universe is a paltry sum compared to the quarters we throw into slot machines, to our own detriment. I think space exploration is a worthy thing to spend my tax dollars on.
Our Earth is getting more crowded, poorer and polluted. In the next 50 years we will start to run short on many of the rare earth minerals and metals that are driving the forge of technology of the 21st century. Yet this need not be. These materials lay in abundance on the moon and the asteroids. We need only develop a way to utilize this source and we will have almost limitless resources to drive the future of our civilization. Many already know this and are developing technologies both private and governmental to do just this. There is even talk of building a space elevator using ultra strong nano materials that will allow us to access space at a fraction of the cost of conventional rockets. All these things are literally just around the corner. Those who preach doom and gloom take note: we need not end the human experiment fighting more and more lethal wars for fewer and fewer resources. We can expand humanity into the solar system and then the stars. That dream IS achievable.

To create wonder in the minds of children, when they look at the sands of Mars from images returned from the Mars exploration rovers. To hear the myriad gasps of awe at a shuttle launch from the cape. To watch the old videos of the Apollo astronauts as they walked across the dusty surface of the moon, a sight that energized the imaginations of millions. and to expand our descendants past this little planet, into the sky. That's the future I would like to see.