The final space shuttle mission is set to take off this Friday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It’s definitely a sad day for a space geek like me. I mean, you’re talking about a guy who was commander of the “Best Mission Award”-winning mission at his session of Space Camp (I know, I know, I’m the coolest guy ever. Fuck my life).
It’s not like NASA hasn’t had chances to get this right. They have wasted literally hundreds of billions of dollars on potential replacements for the shuttle that never got off the drawing board, and the culture of waste and underbidding at NASA was a chief culprit (speaking of which, here’s an idea: 25% bonus of salary for engineers on teams that finish projects on time and under-budget. Oh, wait, IT’S TOO FUCKING LATE? Sorry…). But it is a goddamn shame that we have to rely on (gulp) the Russians or private industry for rides into space for the foreseeable future.
If you ask me, though, eventually everything will be okay, and we’ll start making meaningful progress in space again. Unfortunately, this may not be for a long time.
The main reason is my hypothesis of resource scarcity, which has proven true throughout recorded history. At some point, we’re going to start running out of stuff that we need on this planet. I don’t know if it’s going to be oil, or gold, or weird metals like palladium, but at some point, we’re going to need more stuff. As we start running out of stuff, economics dictates that the price of goods will go up. At some point, resources will become so scarce and their prices will get high enough that it will make economic sense to look to extraterrestrial sources for those things we need. No, I’m not talking about buying titanium out of Zorbax’s space pickup, or anything like that, but it will make sense to go somewhere else and mine, be it the Moon, Mars, or even near-Earth asteroids. Private industry will finally start pumping money into space travel technologies, and we will likely make advances (relatively) quickly.
It happened before with the Spaniards and gold. It happened with Columbus and cloves and other spices. It happened with the Vikings and…uh…”fish?” Yeah, I think it was fish. At some point, the economic incentives will be great enough to get us off of our asses and onto somewhere else.
So, dear reader, I have a modest proposal for the people of Earth: start using up more of our shit. Get that fast food with extra Styrofoam. Keep your car running so that you’re cool in the hundred degree heat. Recycling? Who gives a shit? As long as you’re using shit up, you’re helping us advance as a society. And that doesn’t even take China or India into account—when they join the party, look the fuck out.
There are two downsides to this plan. The first is, obviously, that it’s far from foolproof. If we use everything up, but find no way to get ourselves off of this rock, we’re fucked. It would be like Wall-E, but worse, as the cute little robot would be stacking carcasses instead of old lunchboxes and Twinkees. But part of me says that we’re a procrastinating bunch by nature, and if we really needed to find a ride to Mars ten years from now, we could get it done.
The second is that if the Chinese beat us to it, it won’t even matter. Think about it: former Spanish colonies still speak Spanish and identify with Spanish culture (to some extent). The same goes for English and French colonies. If we continue on our current course, it’ll take fifty years or longer to get to the point where we’re desperate enough to start making moves in outer space. The Chinese, meanwhile, want to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade, and move onto Mars from there. If they get to these places first, find something worth mining, and start selling it to us, they will own us more than they already do. Not to mention that they’ll end up having a monopoly on space culture and society—since when did fighting for “the American way” become lame?—and we’d be left as even bigger consumers while not actually producing anything, leaving us in a horrific death spiral of unemployment and debt.
Or, we could just get off of our asses now before there’s an economic imperative, and potentially discover new economic primers along the way. We could regain the advantage we’ve had in the space race while discovering new technologies and
air factories from lost civilizations on Mars entire new industries. We could regain some of the vision that we seemed to have lost somewhere, and make sure that this country continues to be great for years to come.
Whichever way you guys want it: forward-thinking visionaries, or aerosol-spraying reactionaries. Regardless, it will happen. Wouldn’t you rather reach out to the planets on our own terms instead of as a measure of last resort?
Thoughts on the (end of the) space program? Think I’m crazy? Let me know in the comments.