Sunday, August 03, 2008

Stuck on the Blue Marble?

I decided to promote a comment exchange from my recent "Obama Shifts Spaceward" post into a new post. Reader "ZZ" first commented:

The sad truth is that 90% of the American populace don't give a flying fig about space exploration. Once Apollo failed to morph into Star Trek, they lost interest, and Presidents and candidates ever since have followed suit by ignoring the issue. It's time to face the fact that we're bound to this blue marble forever.

I replied:

True enough that most people don't care about space exploration per se. They also don't especially care about materials research that gives them hard drives for their iPods, biological research that might someday lead to useful new drugs, and many other wonky things that engineers and scientists do. They mostly care about results that can benefit them, and to a certain extent they enjoy novelty for its entertainment value.

People like things that space technology has given us, like hurricane warnings and GPS, though this stuff happens mostly near the Earth and without astronauts, and most people don't think much about the space connection anyway.

Some people do care about national competitiveness and technology when it affects jobs, especially their own. But apparently not enough to demand better education systems let alone space exploration. That's a problem that will be solved, in some countries at least.

Apollo is still a tough act to follow. So many things went well and so much money and priority went into it in those few amazing years, and it was also quite novel and entertaining (for a while).

So I can understand your cynicism and pessimism. But "forever" is a long time. I'd love to see humans on Mars in my lifetime, but it may not happen for 50 more years. I'd love to see Americans as key partners when it does happen (I hope and assume it will be an international effort). But maybe it will be the Chinese. And maybe it will take another full-blown space race or a near-hit by an asteroid to really kick things into gear. Or maybe it will only take a couple of companies finally making a big profit in space and going public.

It could go many ways. I went into a technical field myself because of Gemini and Apollo, and many other engineers and scientists were similarly inspired. This was the "human spinoff" from the space program of the 60's that greatly helped the development of US technology businesses for many years afterward.

It's easy to be cynical and pessimistic, but I believe optimism is a better strategy. Maybe nothing much will happen in the next 8 or 15 years, but I'm optimistic that space will open up vast new opportunities for mankind, and that new discoveries and developments will come along that will again make it exciting to more people.

This blue marble isn't so bad. We can still do a lot with it and we should. But "bound here forever" is a lot like those predictions of respected physicists and others who confidently said in 1902 that heavier than air flight was essentially impossible. It's a very shortsighted view, unless your "forever" only extends through an administration or two.

1 comment:

iqb said...

flying singer, a great article!!
i absolutely agree with your optimistic view of the future of space. its the final frontier and it is our destiny. every step that mankind takes towards the space, will eventually be more beneficial to humans in the longer run.
NASA is already seriously planning to set up a permanent outpost on the moon, and also to send a manned mission to the mars in couple of decades or so.
permanent space colonization and faster and more powerful spacecraft are not very far away.