how can we keep space exploration going?
If we'll ever meaningfully explore space, the first thing we need is a vision from our leaders that stretches beyond just winning the next election.
Over the last year, I’ve given more than my fair share of criticism when it comes to NASA and its management over its lack of innovation, Constellation’s technological steps backwards and the looming problems with the ISS noted by a recent GAO report.
Human spaceflight and space exploration in the United States is going downhill and could eventually be handed off entirely to robots, an idea with which I’ve disagreed on this blog and in an article on Discovery Space. But as the old expression goes, anybody can criticize. What are some of the possible ideas by which space exploration could be put back to the forefront? How can we grab political pundits and complacent lawmakers by the eyeballs and get them to pay attention? Is there a plan B for space travel and what strategies could work to keep the Space Age going strong? While I don’t pretend that I have all the answers, there are a few thoughts that come to mind.
One place where to begin is to play the game politicians have been very successfully playing for the last eight years. Rather than ask for more funding and highlight the benefits of space exploration in terms of jobs and a chance to develop groundbreaking technologies that will help us update our infrastructure and boost science and math programs across the nation, why not go on the offensive? When politicians today want something, they pin their opponents to the wall. So why not point out that today’s politicians don’t care about science, math or keeping the nation’s technological and scientific leadership?
Sure they make pretty speeches about it but in the effort department, they always come up short. Invoke the progress of other nations in space travel and say that rather than continue making their country a world leader in innovation and R&D, they’re happy to sit back and cede that leadership to others while yelling about random -isms and fighting petty political battles. Take a note of how few bills even try to emphasize science and education, use it as ammo to pronounce that today’s government is not only content with America being an also ran, and they don’t want to do a thing about it, they declared nothing short of a war on science and technological expertise, labeling them as elitism.
It may seem like a low brow tactic but unfortunately low brow tactics work and there are plenty of people with a very deep investment in the United States being the world’s leader in something. Bombarding them with dire, truthfully heavy messages could motivate them. Rather than the cheery PSAs with smiling students talking up the benefits of education for the future, emphasize the problem. Fear and anger are strong emotions and the political movements of today have been using them very effectively.
Vague, upbeat affirmations no longer elicit a real response. Hence we need to note that Americans spend more on pizza than on NASA and just how far behind the nation’s students are falling on international math and science tests due to badly thought out and reprehensibly shortsightedly administrated educational system which quickly discards exciting or stimulating teaching methods in favor of cramming for terribly mismanaged and politicized standardized tests. The people need to know there’s a problem and that it’s not only bad, it’s dishearteningly awful.
Of course even political gamesmanship and clear elucidations of exactly what education and R&D related to space travel and exploration can bring doesn’t mean that the government will appoint good managers whose vision can put NASA back on the right track. Higher budgets, driven by constant emphasis on the need to keep research programs humming at maximum capacity and campaigns which show what will happen should we keep going the way we’re going now, will help immensely. But we can’t leave everything to the government. To really move things along, tax codes need to encourage R&D, give even more credits for education, and allow more and more corporations to rev up their scientific pursuits.
When it comes to space travel, space tourism startups can play an invaluable role in keeping human spaceflight going by partnering up with NASA, leasing their space planes and privately built space stations, and replacing today’s huge, static contractors who have zero incentive to innovate and design new craft. We also need to develop plans for how to profit from R&D and set up research programs for the purpose of not only solving scientific problems, but making technology used for the required experiments present commercially viable benefits.
Space exploration should be a mission, a manifestation of the kind of projects we need to keep ahead in the world economy. We need to involve more and more students and professionals in the effort and find ways to make it profitable by finding value in scientific endeavors. And very importantly, we need to stop just yelling into the wind about the important of education and exploration. We need to turn it into a challenge and hold all the politicians, pundits and bloviating blowhards to task for vilifying science as little more than overrated elitism or an unnecessary indulgence, and threatening future progress in their quest for money and political power.