by Kent Ballard
I surprised myself last week while watching the NASA coverage of their Orion test. The first day was a nasty reminder of all the times when the world and I waited through countless holds. But on the second day, at around T minus 20 seconds, a miracle happened.
I became young again.
Young enough that it was all still a mystery. So young that the unknown no longer held any fear. I was young enough to challenge the universe on its own terms and I was confident of victory. We could face this great thing. And we could beat it.
But the glow of those engines has died out now, and I’m back on Earth. What I see is not encouraging. We’re not only fighting the universe here. We’re fighting ignorance and superstition and mankind’s eternal curses of greed and stupidity. And no amount of engineering can help us.
When I was a small child, very few people believed it would ever be possible to land a man on the Moon. You would still get laughed at for saying you thought differently. We not only landed a dozen men over several missions, we took cars with us and drove around on the damned thing, a uniquely American way of conquering any new land.
You’ll get laughed at today while talking about starships. Never mind the fact that we’re now investigating the Alcubierrie Drive, a dead ringer for the legendary Warp Drive that powered four generations of fictional ships around the galaxy. And if you try to talk to people about the EmDrive, all but a very tiny handful will have no idea what you mean. If you explain that it means thrust from electrical power only—a reactionless, fuelless thrust—if they have any grasp of physics they’ll simply tell you it isn’t possible. But it is. We’re working on that too. And the Chinese are very interested in it as well. Both nations have small working models that produce thrust and are scaling them up. Other nations will follow soon.
Still, the uneducated moan and wring their hands about all that money spent in space. They’re fools and always have been. Not one cent has ever been spent in space. All that money was spent here in our economy and it went to develop new chemicals and materials, processes to miniaturize things, new kinds of batteries and power sources, computers that are cheaper, faster, smarter, and smaller. NASA employs many more plumbers and bulldozer operators than astronauts, more bricklayers and electricians than physicists, and they give more paychecks to janitors than to people working on new propulsion systems. And they do it all on much less annually than one battle cost in Iraq or Afghanistan and they spent a helluva lot less blood buying all that too. The United States has now spent over nine trillion dollars supposedly fighting poverty. We have more poor now than when we started. But for the same expenditure we could have had a world that looked more like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001—and with more employment and better employment for everyone.
Breakthrough technologies do that. When personal computers were new, there was a worry about the economic disruption a “paperless office” would cause. People believed secretaries everywhere would lose their jobs. (Yes, I know, but they really believed that.) What actually happened was computers made countless thousands of new jobs that didn’t exist before and you cannot find a secretary today without at least one computer monitor on his or her desk. One did not eliminate the other. They made each other stronger and more efficient.
People who would boldly go anywhere first have to deal with the others who laugh at them. Cold fusion became the fodder for late night talk show jokes. Fleischmann and Pons died discredited, unable to find work anywhere in the enlightened world of academia that blackballed them. And while cold fusion has been replicated many times over, it hasn’t been officially invented yet because no one has found the secret to starting and stopping it when they want. Therefore it does not exist—but universities around the world keep on doing it and studying it because the riches of King Solomon’s mines await the first team to control it. But they study in secret for the most part. They don’t want to be laughed at, the second-worst imaginable thing in academia, and they don’t want to rock any boats, by far the worst sin. Also some of them could be killed. Controlled cold fusion would wreck the oil industry overnight and set the world economy on its ear. You’d better believe that this work is not only very real but also very dangerous. If you were totally without morals, how many people would you kill for several trillion dollars?
I was listening to some forgettable comic making fun of NASA recently. He said they should make their minds up about asteroids. On one hand, they’re claiming that one could fall on us and kill us all, and on the other they’re talking about lassoing one and bringing it closer to Earth. What gives?
He’s probably not stupid, merely uneducated. I would enlighten him by showing him a map of the Earth, carefully pointing out the gigantic craters left behind by asteroid strikes, and ask him if he’d mind being under one when it hit? And if he did, who would he go crying to in order to save his ass? The Department of Homeland Insecurity? His police department? The Post Office?
Then I’d ask him if money meant anything to him, and point out that a great deal of money is now being invested in robotic devices to mine asteroids in space. Asteroids are like candy. They come in many different flavors. The right kind of asteroid is worth a ridiculous sum of money. How much? It’s been estimated that just one small (thirty yards or so across) S-type asteroid contains over a hundred pounds of gold and platinum, and about one and a half million pounds of other metals like iron, aluminum, titanium, lead, nickel, and other expensive things. The people who no longer laugh at this, and who are investing money today, figure that 241 Germania—a common enough asteroid—contains mineral wealth equal to $95.8 trillion dollars on today’s market. That’s equal to the annual GDP for the world. Bold people are going for a piece of that.
I’d point out too that by taking this wealth from space, no little bunnies or pretty trees would need to be bulldozed away. Those metals can be taken—and will be taken—with no scarring of the Earth, no poisonous mining runoff, and no need for decades of expensive land reclamation projects that might or might not ever be completed. We may not live to see starships, but we will buy things made out of metal from space because those products will be cheaper than Earth-mined metals.
And don’t write off starships either. If the past century has taught us anything, it’s not to laugh too loudly at the impossible. Be honest with yourself. Who would have ever believed in nukes, lasers, or smart phones? Or that two of the three would be developed by private enterprise? Or that the other one would be considered one of the greatest engineering feats in history but only used twice? The point is, don’t scoff at technology and never try to predict it. You’ll always be wrong.
My youthful feeling the other day was bittersweet. Sure, I was one of those kids who idolized the early astronauts and could rattle off every nut and bolt that made up a Mercury or Gemini capsule. But I also bristled at—and fought—the idea that it was all a Cold War stunt. No, space meant more to me than that. It still does. But the old enemies still exist, and I find myself fighting the same ignorance, the same luddites, the same refusal to see what this means to our species. Human history has barely begun, but we wrote another line of it last Friday…no thanks to them.
In the end it means the survival of humanity, that we won’t all be taken out helplessly by a rogue asteroid, solar flare, some virus from hell, or our own stupidity. That’s worth fighting for, even if that day seems so terribly far away. And on a deeper and more spiritual level, it means new hills for people to hike up simply to see what’s on the other side. We need both. We need the security of knowing we can take hits, terribly brutal hits, and still be around. And without our curiosity we would no longer be human. If we should ever lose that we’ve lost everything, including any hope we ever had.
For me, the end of the space program will come at that time when people think no more about hull designs or propulsion systems or radiation shielding, when the great thing before them is that next hill or that next curve in the river ahead. Because at that time, we will never again run out of hills and rivers to explore, new places to go, new lands to seek.
We will be more free than humans have ever been before. We will be free forever.