CNN reports today about NASA’s mid-life crisis and the agency having lost its way. In truth I feel that the lack of vision is not characteristic of a failure on NASA’s part to develop strategic policy but rather a lack of vision on the part of America‘s top administration to recognize the value such contribution makes. NASA’s budget for this year is a paltry $20B.
So let me see if I get this straight. The US has spent approximately $560B since 2002 on the war in Iraq in order to make the region more peaceful and gain strategic access to oil reserves which have experienced an almost 300% increase since the war began. This is considered to be money well spent considering the level of outsourcing that has occurred over the past 10 years, the steady increase in corporate profits on what earnings are made within the US, the $350B/year different between what oil should cost compared to what it is priced at today thanks to market speculators, and now a $700B bail-out package whose price tag is going up every day unless something isn’t done to get the money market moving again.
By comparison, a similar $560B investment in intermediate-green technologies, such as Rentech’s GTL technology, which could have put the US substantially on the road to energy independence including the necessary fuels required for getting into space in the first place, and augmentation of NASA’s space program, which creates high-end jobs in both R&D and manufacturing domestically, would have realized . . . what? . . . maybe a thriving sustainable economy that leverages the key strategic assets that can only be gotten from first world countries such as a solid educational system and population with disposable income willing to invest and support those same technologies?
Yep – I can see the benefits are paying off already.
All sarcasms aside – the point here is that its unfair to point the finger at NASA for a failure of vision when the Administration that is necessary in order to support any vision is so stuck in a 1950s McCarthy era mindset that it can’t see past its own fear mongering to establish a realistic vision for the country as a whole. And the unfortunate part in all this is that where goes the US goes Canada, Europe, and a host of other countries/economic zones that are so economically integrated with American policy that it becomes impossible to talk about issues at this level such that their impacts are only felt within the US itself.
As with most issues however it is always easier to focus on pointing a finger in one direction rather than looking at the larger picture. If NASA needs a vision for the future then I offer one up here for consideration:
What drives countries from economic have-nots to world super powers is not their resource base but rather their capability of mobilizing a society towards manufacturing and export. NASA vision should not just be to go to Mars but rather developing the infrastructure necessary to produce finished and semi-finished goods in low and very-low gravity environments. So for example, mining and exploration of asteroids and comets in near earth orbit. Establishing habitats for trades and craftsmen. Transportation systems for getting raw materials in and out of the central orbital planes between Venus and Jupiter with Mars representing the ideal central location for such manufacturing to take place.
Essentially, NASA’s role would become one of co-ordinating the US economic engine and logistics towards these goals rather than being directly responsible for their implementation. R&D funds and local commercial manufacturing would necessarily follow suit as priorities are set for specific levels of resource and manufacturing production. This would not only stimulate political will behind space exploration in our immediate local group of planets but also funds from the commercial industry as the potential for ownership and economic profits related economic drivers steadily increase.