Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Space Exploration - The REAL Stimulus Plan


A little over 41 years ago, man first walked on the moon. For the first time in probably centuries, a human being was walking on terrain that had never been touched by a human being. And during that time, the whole world was united in watching as a man gently floated down to the surface of the moon, implanting his footprint into the dusty surface.

As we all should know, the lunar race was sparked by a call to action from John F. Kennedy. He called for man to break the bonds of Earth and move into the stars. Unfortunately he was not able to live to see that, but his call to action was answered. That call to action also brought forth economic prosperity and technological advances that are still in use today or spawned greater advances in technology. I could write a whole post on that, but Computerworld did a great article on this which I will occasionally reference. It can be found HERE.

The beauty of the 60’s space program was that it was similar to the early days of America. It is almost fitting that popular culture moved from Westerns to Science Fiction/Space. I say this because; space exploration is the wild west of now. Much like the early explorers of the Americas, whether it be the Spanish and French explorers, discovering the new lands or those on the East Coast looking for land and prosperity and exploring the “wild west”, the journey into space is the journey into the unknown.

With the journey into the unknown, there is a price. This price is an investment in the future and an investment into discovering the unknown. Much like the Spaniards of old, they invested gold into exploration of the western hemisphere. The reward, they believed, would be faster trade routes. What instead they found were lands full of riches. These riches included new foods, animals, minerals and land. Seeing the investment pay off, the kingdoms increased their investment and expanded their expeditions. These early kingdoms, Spain, France, England, etc., saw the value of investing in these ventures as they provided benefit for now and the future.

Fast forward several hundred years and we see that our government is not looking towards the future. Since mothballing the Apollo program, NASA has been asked assigned to manage flights for the delivery of satellites and to limit the true exploration to the use of satellites. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is smart to use satellite technology to act as our “scouts”, but we are not following that scouting up with additional exploration. The investment in space exploration and colonization is essential for our long term growth.

First, let’s talk turkey. Space exploration is expensive. It is really expensive. It is really, really, really expensive. That said it is completely worth it. According to Scott Hubbard of Stanford University where he is a professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department, $7 or $8 in goods and services are produced for every $1 that the government invests in NASA. Scott should know, he used to work for NASA for 20 years. Right now, NASA is set to receive just 0.52% of the overall national budget or 18.7 billion dollars. Imagine what could happen to our economy if the US Government were to initiate a true space exploration program or an aggressive lunar or mars mission. The money needed would be great, but the rewards could be tremendous.

NASA does it right when they work with various companies. They provided some “seed” money to get the various companies to solve various needs. In doing so, these companies are allowed to keep the patent on whatever they create. In 1998 a study was done on the impact of this process. Of the 15 companies that agree to participate it was found that NASA gave $64 million, these companies invested and addition $200 million and the return on that investment is conservatively estimated at $1.5 billion. This does not even include the social benefits that come from these discoveries. That means that about $23.4 dollars per dollar was generated off of NASA’s initial investment. More information on this can be found HERE

In regards to MO 1st district, McDonnell Douglas played a big part in the early space program. All of the Mercury and Gemini space capsules were actually built by McDonnell Douglas here in St. Louis. Specifically, they were engineered and built at the MD facilities just north of Lambert Airport. While I could not find any studies done to give specific impact, I would have to believe there was some. Personally I know of many former McDonnell engineers and technicians who do or used to live in the North County St. Louis area. Anecdotally, those people lived there because it was close to work.

Just think of what advances and economic stimulus the country would have if the government were to truly re-invest in space technology. All presidents have spoken with words, but few have chosen true action. An aggressive space agency would help bring major innovation to technology, bio-science, aerodynamics, and propulsion technologies, just to name a few. By letting these companies keep the patents, we could see consumer ready variations of these products in the market in just a few years. An investment in an aggressive space program, similar to what NASA received in 1966, 5.5% of total budget, would give the US space program $198 billion dollars which is less than the total committed to TARP.

This type of funding would help employ jobs at all levels and should yield substantial increases and technology.

Moving beyond the economic impact, think of the social impact that this type of program would bring. With the jobs, would come greater prosperity for many people. Using the current NASA model, many companies would be able to offer additional services. Daniel Lockney, the editor of Spinoff, NASA's annual publication that reports on the use of the agency's technologies in the private sector, said the advancements during the Apollo missions were staggering.

"There were remarkable discoveries in civil, electrical, aeronautical and engineering science, as well as rocketry and the development of core technologies that really pushed technology into the industry it is today. It was perhaps one of the greatest engineering and scientific feats of all time. It was huge. The engineering required to leave Earth and move to another heavenly body required the development of new technologies that before hadn't even been thought of. It has yet to be rivaled."
Imagine what would be created for a manned mission to Mars, or a true lunar base. We would need to create all of these things along with green, renewable energy and more importantly sustainable nutritional technology to sustain such missions.

Instead of looking to future, our government and politicians have grown short sighted. Rather than looking at investments, they are too worried about the here and the now, the special interest groups and the party politics. During the 60’s we were united on a cause of reaching where no human had gone before. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon, all of mankind watched. It was a spectacle to behold. It was to be the first step of many. It was a promise to the future.

That promise has turned into a lie. Instead of moving forward, we have become stale. Rather than moving out the way, government has made spaceflight a bureaucracy. Rather than see the potential for jump starting innovation, we have become mired in the politics of it. In regards to blame, it is across the board. Both Republicans and Democrats have cut funding to this agency, routing it instead to their pork barrel projects or social programs.

If the government is not going to move forward, then they need to get out of the way and let private enterprise move forward. The problem is private enterprise can’t. In the United States, there is so much red tape that someone has to go through to test and launch a vehicle; it becomes nearly impossible to do it without government intervention.

While kingdoms sponsored the early exploration to the western hemisphere, it was the small groups, individuals and private industry that helped pave the way to western America. These explorers and pioneers went west to discover and lay claim to the untapped land and resources that were out there. These people/parties did so by financing projects on their own and just moving forward. It was their work that helped pave the way for the rest of the country. They were able to do so because the government encouraged them and staid out of their way. The same could be done for the space program.

By loosening up the restrictions on space flight, allowing companies access to closed military bases for storage and launch sites or even allowing limited land, discovery or mining rights for interplanetary travel, companies would be willing to invest in space exploration using their own money.

While we may not see the economic increase that a government sponsored program would bring, loosening restrictions as well as incentivizing participation would create opportunities that many companies would be willing to take the risks on.

Now, there will be some that say that this is too risky and dangerous and not worth the costs. Space travel should be limited and left to the government. To that I say this. If we had lived by those standards over all these years, we may just now be discovering the Americas.

Man is a wanderer and explorer by nature. We yearn to see what else is in store for us and what is on the other side of the mountain. Curiosity is part of our makeup. You can see it in babies. They take their first steps and immediately begin going to the places they were told not too. They do this because they want to see and know more. Space is the next frontier. It is an infinite place, filled with wonder and danger, where we can go, “what’s next.”

Those who participate know the danger they are exposed too. Those brave men and women who have died in the name of space, knew the dangers that were inherent with space travel. They knew it and went anyway. We cannot and should not try and overly protect those who are willing to go forward. We should encourage that growth and discovery balanced with safety, whether it be via a government sponsored program or private industry. I long for the day that I can sit on my sofa and watch as a human being takes steps off of some Martian lander and makes the first imprint on Martian soil.

In closing, I ask you to think about this as budgets and politics are discussed. Think about tomorrow and the greatness that could be achieved. Think about the potential that an aggressive space program could give us. And think of the promise of a future among the stars for our children. While you are doing that, watch the following videos and just think of what could be.

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