It's Not Magic
Writings of a techie wizard
Thu, 19 Apr 2012
Along with a lot of other people, I watched Discovery fly over Washington, DC on its way to Dulles Airport. A good sequence of pictures is here. I lamented a while back that today's NASA seems to have fallen far from the NASA of the Apollo missions, but obviously there's not much to be done about that except to move on (see below for more on that), and anyway, that's not Discovery's fault. The Shuttle deserves a good retirement, and will get one; I plan to go see it in its new home.
Then I saw news of a new venture called Planetary Resources, backed by James Cameron and the founders of Google, which, if speculations are correct, plans to mine asteroids. So as I said in that post a while back, we don't need NASA to go into space now; private ventures, at least in the US, will do it on their own dime. It will be interesting to see if NASA's current plans get there before a private venture does.
Many people are probably wondering why a private venture would even get into this business. I am sad to note that the magazine closely associated with my alma mater, Technology Review, appears to be in this category; their response to the press release announcing the venture can only be described as snarky:
Regular readers of TR (which I still am, but may not be for much longer if they keep going the way they're going) will recognize the "livable climate" bit as a reference to global warming; I won't comment on that here since it deserves a whole separate post (and will probably get one sometime soon). The "dwindling supplies of oil" bit is just as bad; we don't need to go into space to find substitutes for oil. (And that's not even considering other alternatives like nuclear power--TR does know that MIT has a whole Nuclear Engineering department working on that, right?) And even if the venture is intended to be nothing more than asteroid mining, at least to start with, there are a lot of resources to be mined from asteroids; that "trillions of dollars" part is not hyperbole (in fact it is probably an underestimate of the total value that will eventually be realized). Does that not count enough in TR's calculus of value to merit more than a passing comment before the snark begins?
But the real problem with this attitude is the narrowness of vision, the underlying belief that the best way to face our problems is to withdraw inside our shell, to scramble as best we can for our share of a limited pie, rather than looking for new ways to make more pie. Isaac Asimov wrote a story called The Martian Way which showed this kind of contrast. Human settlers on Mars have a problem: Earth is reducing shipments of water to Mars, which are crucial for the settlement because it needs much more water than it can tap from Mars' polar cap. The temptation is there to withdraw, to accept the limitation and reduce the settlers' quality of life by restricting their water usage; ultimately, it is quite possible that this would mean the settlement would have to be abandoned altogether, and its people would have to return to Earth to an impoverished existence. But the Martian people choose another option: go and get water from the rings of Saturn, which turn out to be composed of huge mile-wide chunks of mostly pure water ice (this was the actual scientific belief then and still is today). They bring back enough to be able to not only meet their own needs but to sell water back to Earth in order to help with the water shortage there that forced the shipments to be reduced.
Humanity has always faced problems, and we always will. The only choice we have is whether we face them with hope or with fear. But there is not only an individual choice, for each of us to make for ourselves; there is also a social choice, whether or not to let the fears of the fearful constrain the hopes of the hopeful. When we sent astronauts to the Moon, we chose not to let that happen; there were plenty of naysayers who said it could not be done, and plenty more who said that maybe it could be done, but that it was too risky to try. We made the same choice, to a lesser extent, when Discovery and the other Shuttles flew. But neither of those ventures was supposed to be the end; both were just first steps and were meant to be followed by others. And it looks like they will be. I'm glad to see that happen. It appears that TR is not, which is fine; but at least they should have the decency to keep it to themselves.
So happy retirement, Discovery, and I hope you'll have some company in time, when the museum exhibit opens showing the first retired spacecraft that made the run to the asteroids and back.
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