April 16, 2010

A Different Direction

President Obama's administration is taking NASA in a different direction than has been the case so far.

The history of NASA and its great achievements is curious. NASA facilities are spread all across the United States. Evidently, this was to successfully lobby Congress for the huge funds.

The Apollo program had some connection or other to at least 48 of the 50 American states. That probably made it a lot easier to get Congressional approval for the huge budgets that Apollo required.

So, the advanced projects that NASA has conducted — whether the Shuttles or the Voyagers or the Pathfinders — have been sort of like job programs for highly skilled professionals.

This is now apparently going to change. Instead of next generation space exploration programs like Constellation, private companies will be awarded contracts for ferrying folks to space. This is a new direction. Although, even now, it's really private industry that executes most of NASA projects. The difference perhaps is this: instead of established players like Lockheed Martin or Boeing, it will be up to fresh new competitors to execute this vision. Hopefully, the newer companies will be small and nimble and swift and cheap and capable.

It's all about costs at the end of the day. It's clear that America is in deep economic trouble — by the standards of an advanced economy that is. It has a huge unemployment problem. A great many high paying technology jobs are getting outsourced to destinations like India while millions of low-skilled manufacturing jobs have moved to China.

So, Americans are being buffetted by many problems and visionary stuff like space exploration seems to be far from their mind at the present time — quite predictably.

The rest of the world is not much better, of course. Much of the world still continues to wrestle with basic problems — food, shelter, sanitation, drinking water, basic education, vaccination of kids, etc.

So, it would appear that for the forseeable future — for the duration of our lifetimes — humanity's focus will remain firmly 'grouned' to Earth.

At a fundamental level, the core problem is that people are only interested in activities that they can relate to on a personal level. People want to have babies. People want to get married. When people are old, they want their kids to get married and have more babies in turn.

The planet is overpopulated. Resources are dwindling. People have various material desires such as owning houses or cars. And people's lives get spent in taking care of these sort of concerns.

And so space exploration has to take a backseat. Dates for landing a human on Mars continue to be deferred. The first human is supposed to land there in the 2030s now. That will be long after my death.

The 21st century will see spectacular advances in compouting of course. We will see cell phones with amazing features and other cute products like the iPods and iPads. We'll get used to reading ebooks.

Medical science will find some miracle cures for hitherto incurable diseases. Some forms of cancer may become treatable or some forms of dementia may become treatble. Of course it will be such a blessing if breast cancer or melanoma or brain cancer becomes treatable or if AIDS is no longer life-threatening.

But the 21st century probably won't see any breathtaking advances in the realm of space exploration.

Not at least in the first half of it. Who knows what might happen as we approach the middle of the century — 2050.

It would of course be foolhardly even to speculate about what might happen in 2100. I wonder if we would have made contact yet with extraterrestrial intelligence by then. That will be a game changer.

Or, if we can find some drug that people can take and thereafter become as smart as Einstein or Feynman.

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