Thursday, March 22, 2012

Our Future Pioneers: Abandoning Destiny

"Dedicated to You, Our Future Pioneers..."

This is the final epitaph of "Macross Plus", a SciFi anime miniseries/movie that I absolutely adore, a show that all people need to see.  The entire Macross franchise, being space giant robot adventures, is largely a tale of humankind stepping out into space and traveling the stars.  By "Macross Plus", mankind has settled an entire planet for at least a generation or two, has faster than light travel, has cohabited with an entire alien race, and is rapidly spreading out into the stars.  "Macross Frontier" takes place a generation later, where the covered wagons that settled the Old West have their successors in nation-sized armadas of space stations soaring through the cosmos looking for new worlds to inhabit.  Yeah, this isn't exactly the most hard science franchise, but it still imagines a future where mankind has stepped deep outside of the solar system, well beyond our home planet.  "Macross Plus", by the way, is set in 2040, an immensely optimistic date for such achievements.  Ignore the science and practical concerns, and just look at the message for a second:  Macross is the dream of exploration, the dream of spreading outward, the dream of our children spanning the galaxy and ruling the universe in a sea of endless space and freedom for all.

Meanwhile, in the real world, that dream seems to be going nowhere fast.  2030 is the current fantasy date of most space projects, from landing men back on the Moon to sending something or another to Mars.  In my lifetime, in the realm of space exploration, we've accomplished basically nothing.  2040 is going to pass, and we're not going to be settled on any other world, let alone Eden so many lightyears away.  I've long ago accepted that I'm going to spend my entire life on this one world, and the day I realized that was massively depressing.  Look, on a fundamental level I believe the only real future of the human race is in outer space.  We either move on to other worlds, spread out genetic material out into the vast reaches of the stars, or we go instinct, either due to some manmade disaster here like nuclear war or overpopulation or whatever, or a big figgin' space rock blows up the Earth!  Either way, if mankind wants to survive, we need to spread out.  Its a wild dream, but I'm a wild guy, I dream big.

But right now... we're fucking it up.  Even in the minor goal - relatively speaking to full galactic human empire - of landing a man on Mars, we're screwing it up.  Our space program is a mess.  We seem to have no real goal, no money, no plan, and finally, most embarrassingly, no spaceship.  NASA just doesn't have the money or the resources to accomplish what we need.  This is a depressing post to write.

Last year, the United States retired its space shuttle program.  This is would be a bittersweet moment under any circumstances, the shuttle has been flying people into space since before I was born.  But its especially sad when we didn't have anything to replace the shuttles with.  Right now if NASA wants to launch an astronaut into space, we have to carpool with Russian rockets.  For years the United States has been relatively complacent with its space program, having the world's premier space program mostly through default, not true competition.  The Moon landing was forty years ago, that one feather in our cap has been all we've been running on for decades.  Not to doubt the many innovations of NASA in the last few decades, they've done remarkable work with what they've had, but pretty much everybody thought we'd be farther along in space than we actually are now.  The embarrassment of America being a space power without space ships should be enough to wake us up, but it hasn't.

Last month, the recent NASA budget was several million dollars less than what NASA needed, so they had to scrap missions.  The money was simply not there.  NASA's budget as a percentage of total federal funding has been dropping since the 90s, with only several million dollars added, not even keeping up with inflation.  NASA's budget has actually dropped in the last few years, partially because of that budget crisis business that Congress wasted America's time with last summer - and ultimately led to jack shit in progress.  There is a lot of current debate over whether NASA's decision to cut its planetary exploration budget by 100 million was the right move, but its a symptom of a larger problem.  NASA doesn't have the money they need to do everything they want to do.  We had to drop out of joint-European missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018, because of the budget situation.  The Curiosity mission to land a rover is still slated for next year, so we can hope for major successes there.

The real problem is just lack of interest.  Especially in the United States.  It wasn't a few years ago that George W. Bush was hoping that the Constellation Program would lead astronauts to the Moon.  Then Obama simply canceled it, in what was probably his worst single act as President.  Yeah, Obama, I'm calling you out:  you don't give a damn about space, you've undercut NASA at every turn, you're the worst thing to happen to America's space program since the Challenger explosion.  Its the 1970 Congress all over again.  Who is the only Presidential candidate who actually cares about space exploration?  Newt Gingrich.  He's the only candidate who dares to dream, and god bless him for it.  But Newt Gingrich gets mocked by pundits, including Jon Stewart*.  We're going nowhere fast, but nobody is angry about it.  Well, get angry.  We should get angry.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is out there campaigning for NASA, asking for NASA to double its budget.  Why isn't anybody listening to him in our government?  This is about inspiring our future generations to actually believe in ambition, to believe that the nearly impossible can be made impossible.  I'm 100% behind Tyson here.  Why isn't he President?

I'm not very optimistic about America's space program in the next decade.  We might launch our first commercial space flights, so that the super wealthy can brush a small finger into the heavens, but that's the only positive spot.  America just seems to be stepping out of the space race.  Humanity is going to accomplish its heavenly destiny one way or another.  If the US government is too stupid to see the future, other country's will.  Russia has gotten extremely ambitious with their space program, and their budget is rapidly catching up with ours.  Or in another scenario, how can the United States continue to claim to be the world's only superpower when the Chinese flag is flying on Mars?  So far only NASA has actually been able to reach Mars with a rover, but I really doubt that America can keep up our first place position when our program is so totally fucked.

Maybe its not this generation that's going to reach Mars, maybe its not this generation that will begin colonizing other worlds.  But I don't see why it can't be.  What are future galactic historians going to say about that small Earth-bound country that was the United States?  That it could have led the world into our future?  That it could have been great?  But instead chose mediocrity instead, it sold out its future, and chose to slowly die, on Earth.  When a nation loses its ambition, losing its power to dream big, that's when it loses its strength.  That's when it becomes a second-rate power.  There is a future to grasp here, but we're too lazy and too stupid to see it.

* Too bad Gingrich isn't going to get the Republican nomination, he's actually not that bad compared to Santorum.  And he isn't the kind of leader I'd want to screw with if I were the Taliban.  Yeah, he's an awful scumbag, but maybe that's what we need right now.  I might chose a Machiavellian Prince over a mere politician.


  1. I think everyone cried when Obama shut down the space program. I think it's too late for the US to make a come back to numero uno in the world. Our goverment is too polluted to care about anything outside of their bank accounts. I'm pretty sure in a couple of years we'll see coke ads attach to the congress seats. Isn't it ironic that we have to rely on Russia and China to get a ride into space? I bet their just laaaughing their asses off.

    1. You sir (or madam), win today's internet.

  2. I think there's a common and fundamental misunderstanding non-scientists have, which is the root of this attitude. It's what makes people reject space exploration, and to a lesser extent, branches of science like theoretical physics. In a way, it's also present in your positive post.

    Many laymen ask, "Why should we bother with space when there's so much to fix on this planet? What's the point of landing a single person on Mars? Wouldn't that money be better used to save people here, since space exploration offers no solutions cheaply or quickly?" Look at all the bad rap CERN is getting with the LHC.

    But getting individuals into space isn't the most important thing. Science is about the method, about what we learn (and our null results) when we do it. Many people are goal-oriented rather than progress-oriented, and there's where the misunderstanding stems from. They don't see how space provides a unique environment to test our knowledge and innovation: how do we make materials that can stand the heat extremes of space, what fuel best balances energy and weight, how can we use the Sun to power our craft efficiently? I don't want to overstate the serendipity of science, but discoveries tangential to our original aims and hypotheses do occur. The MRI machine was developed in the course of space research. Science always generates startling connections like that between its fields.

    1. The attitude of "fixing the problems on Earth" before going into space is self-defeating, I feel. For one, we're not getting any closer to solving our problems on Earth, we just keep bickering endlessly. For another, there's always going to be an Earth-bound problem to deal with. Even if we brought stability to the Middle East, solved our education system, balanced the budget, and brought liberty and justice to all, we'd still find something to fix.

      What, are we supposed to build a utopia on Earth before we can settle space? If this were Columbus' attitude my primary ancestry would be stuck in Europe. There'd be no America and the world would be a much worse place for it.

      Part of what makes humanity a vibrant species is our ability to constantly push the frontiers and break down barriers. If we stay still, we'll stagnant, rot, and die out. Part of what allowed the last four centuries of human history be a great flowering of human civilization was the possibilities of open frontiers in the Americas, a tabula rasa where new civilizations could be formed by the fusions of old ones. That's what colonization offers: blank slates for whole new kinds of societies and cultures.

      Outer space might just be the solution to our problems on this planet. That's what the non-dreamers don't realize.

  3. Washington DC: Where hope and dreams go to die.

  4. Does this topic has to do with your professional field or maybe is it mostly about your hobbies and types of spending your free time?