Monday, January 30

Thinking Big: Why Not The Moon?

Although many people laughed when presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested the pursuit of a permanent moon base by 2020, and a rival candidate said he would fire an employee who came to him with such proposal, there is another question to be asked. Politics aside, why not the moon?

For many years, NASA has struggled with a public relations problem. In 2006, even NASA administrator Mike Griffin made the point that the agency's scientists and engineers are not very good at explaining to the public why what they do is important.

Interestingly enough, journalist Taylor Dinerman almost pinpointed one of several problems for the space agency. It cannot control what its employees say about the agency's programs and goals.

The reason I inserted an "almost" into the sentence is because it's not so much that it "cannot" control what its employees say. The real problem is that the employees have no centralized vision to follow. A return to the moon would give them that. A return to the moon might even enamor Americans with NASA again. And a return to the moon might give the United States a leadership position that doesn't involve globetrotting and nation building all over this world.

Thinking Big Is What Makes People Great. 

I don't mean the person who proposed it, but rather the people who will do it. And I don't just mean a revived space program, but rather any organization that dares to recast entire industries. There are dozens of examples, modern and historic, but even keeping the moon in focus can illustrate the point.

What could the benefits of going to the moon really mean? Almost anything you can dream up, and I don't just mean the idea that humans need to find a way off planet or one day face oblivion (a true argument, but one that most people cannot fathom). There are benefits to shoot for the moon.

• Economic Shift. We have reached a crossroads in that it is difficult to employ Americans in manufacturing for what people want Americans to earn, which is compounded by the fact that the public will not spend more for products to support higher salaries and better benefits. The lone exception is highly-skilled manufacturing jobs. A space program could help change the negative perception of highly-skilled manufacturing because it transforms factory workers into robotic technicians or rocket builders, people who earn the higher salaries and benefits Americans crave.

• Education Shift. We cannot go a few days without hearing how dismal the eduction system has become in America. The problem is three-fold. Students are not being taught critical thinking skills, have a difficult time connecting the dots between the subject matter and their futures, and don't always think pursuing an education will lead to anything worthwhile. A viable space program with a defined mission could renew interest in math, science, and engineering.

• Energy Shift. Most people agree that the United States needs to place an emphasis on sustainable energy. Unfortunately, most debates get mired down in polarized issues like climate change and never produce intelligent solutions. The prospect of a moon colony kills the debate. There would be no choice but to pursue technological advances such as solar energy or other energy sources we haven't dreamed up yet because people stationed on the moon would need it while people on Earth would benefit too.

• Agricultural Shift. You cannot look around the world and not notice that a majority of people on this planet do not have enough fresh water or food supplies. Whatever innovations would have to be dreamed up to build a sustainable moon colony would no doubt benefit people right here on planet Earth. At the same time, nutritionists and medical professionals would have to work even harder to understand the physiology of people and place a greater emphasis on prevention and cures as opposed to symptom-control via prescription medication.

• Attitude Shift. Many Americans have grown sensitive to risk aversion. People are increasingly voting for security over opportunity. People want high-yield retirement accounts with zero risk. They want jobs to employ them indefinitely, with the flexibility to leave companies anytime they choose. They want bulletproof medical care that extends life indefinitely, but the freedom to eat junk food in wildly impressive quantities. They want space programs to be accident free, but are willing to hold daily transportation to a much lower standard, provided they can drive 10 or 20 miles over the speed limit. A space program, particularly one as aggressive as a moon colony, might reinvigorate our spirit.

• Who Knows? There is really no way to know what the future of space might hold. But there are plenty of possibilities. Mining could produce any number of new materials that could fundamentally improve life on earth without gobbling up our resources. Space tourism could finally become a viable industry, giving people a destination that is as brilliant as visiting another part of the world used to be in the 1900s. And much like previous space programs did for five decades, all of it comes with benefits that will outlast the initial return on investment.

Right now, the United States is not the only country on the planet setting its sights on the moon and beyond. In fact, we may be the only country that has shrugged off its own program without having a viable alternative beyond hitching a ride on the technological achievements of other nations.

Such a course of retreat cannot last or else the nation will languish in its own abandoned destiny. The benefits and advancements of science, technology, engineering, and knowledge by pursing a space program that places us on the moon and then beyond the moon is by far the most important undertaking this country could revive, reinvent, and remain in the lead with peaceful intent and empowered purpose.

While I have no sense of what candidate (or incumbent) I will vote for in the coming elections, I do vote to go to the moon. I vote to go to the moon because throughout history, this world is made better by companies, organizations, and nations of people who dreamed, dared, and did as opposed to those who have rested, have retreated, and have long been forgotten.

It is the very pursuit of the improbable that makes things possible. It is a singular overarching purpose that could correct the decades-long lackluster public relations program at NASA. And it is pursuit of space exploration that could be the catalyst this country needs to push itself out its current stalemate.
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