Sunday, August 2, 2009

America Matters Only if NASA Matters to America

A recent piece by Michael Mealling asks if the suggestions before the Augustine Commission could rival the dawn of the internet.
Prior to 1993, the National Science Foundation ran the Internet as an exclusive tool for university and government research (commercial speech was completely banned from the Internet prior to 1991). The NSF then decided to turn over the operation of the Internet to the private sector. Just two years later, Netscape’s IPO set records for first day gains. Despite the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the Internet industry has been one of the largest economic drivers of the last 15 years.

The suggestions coming from the Augustine Commission are somewhat reminiscent of NSF’s decision. By relinquishing its domination of low Earth orbit and partnering with commercial providers for beyond low Earth orbit infrastructure, NASA can better accomplish its exploration goals and foster a whole new industry. While we won’t see a space startup in every garage the way we did with Internet startups, the returns for using and developing space resources can be very interesting.

It raises some interesting possibilities, but it doesn't mention a much greater issue that is going to become crucial, not only for the US, but the world as a whole.

The fastest growing economies in the world presently belong to a bloc of nations commonly referred to as BRIC, comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Brazil and Russia's economies are on the rise because of their ties to energy. In Brazil's case, its because of sugar cane ethanol, in Russia's, its because of their oil and gas reserves. Brazil's economy can expect to keep growing as the switch to renewable sources of energy intensifies around the world. Russia's economy may not.

While it is unlikely that our demand for fossil fuels will decrease any time soon (as developed nations switch to "green" energy, developing nations industrialize by whatever means necessary, and take up any "slack" that might be introduced into the market by developed nations cutting back on fossil fuels), it is far from certain that Russia will be able to continue its rapid growth. It currently lacks the infrastructure to export much of is energy production outside of Europe (a Europe which is rapidly trying to wean itself from fossil fuels, not only for environmental reasons, but for fear of a repeat of Russia cutting off its exports during its recent dispute with Ukraine over payments). Building up that infrastructure will be costly and take time (its also hindered by geography, with warm water ports being a bit of a problem). Too much time, and Russia will find itself with few customers for its fossil fuel exports. Additionally, its widely believed that the Russians are not properly reinvesting in their existing operations, allowing them to crumble. Which means that as demand increases, Russia will be forced to allow international companies to take over those operations, if Russia's to have any energy exports at all, thus cutting out much of the profits that have been propping up their economy.

Russia's economy (and Brazil's to some extent) is rather "thin." There's only a single point driving it, that of the energy sector. This, as should be obvious to those of us living in the US, is a Really Bad IdeaTM. If that sector has a slowdown, or as in the case of the US, where the economy was driven by the financial sector, completely collapses, your economy quickly winds up on the wrong side of the shitter. Without large scale investment in other areas, its highly likely that Russia will be back begging for help, as it was in the wake of the Fall of Communism.

In the end, however, neither Russia nor Brazil really matter, no offense meant to those nations. China and India both have populations which dwarf the combined populations of Russia and Brazil. As the income levels in China and India rise, they will have the largest economies on the planet. By 2020, it is estimated that the middle class will be some 700 million people. More than double the population size of US. (That date of 2020 is also important for other reasons I'll get to in a moment.)

I am going to ignore the figures about India (and its really only a question of who gets to the largest economy slot first: India or China) for one reason. India's a democracy. If the US can't be the largest economy on the planet, but the number one slot is held by a democratic nation, I'm content with that. Democratic nations tend to give at least token respect for human rights. China? Not so much.

All of this matters, because the nation with the largest economy on the planet, gets to dictate a lot of things. Some of them are rather subtle, such as scan rates for TVs, others of them can have far reaching consequences, as when a country signs an economic pact with another country. While the US has done its fair share of propping up less than pleasant regimes, we did, at least, raise the issue of human rights within those countries. China is unlikely to do that.

With global attention focused on China, what reason will there be for the world to pay much, if any, attention to the US when it objects to a human rights violation in some part of the world? One reason will be because we've got a bunch of nuclear weapons, but let's face it, do we really want that to be the reason? That puts us at the level of Russia in the days after Communism, where people only worried about keeping tabs on nuclear material and the folks involved with it. Nor is the lure of freedom enough to keep immigrants coming to the US in large numbers. Already, thousands, if not tens of thousands, Indians and Chinese (many who were born here in the US) are leaving the US to settle in China and India because they see the greater economic opportunities which those nations are providing.

Since the US cannot hope to compete in terms of economic size, we're left with really only one choice: Technology. The US must lead the world in technology, and it cannot be only in one or two areas, but it has to be in every area. Space exploration, and specifically, manned space exploration is the definition of "cutting edge." The spin offs from that touch every aspect of our lives, in a myriad of different forms, and it is the only one to drive all those areas at once.

Remember that 2020 date? Here's why it matters: Because that's the date NASA is supposed to return humans to the Moon. And right now, that's not going to happen unless funding levels for NASA are increased. To make it happen, NASA needs to have its budget boosted to at least $25 billion/yr. Ideally, what should happen is that NASA's budget should be immediately bumped up to $25 billion, with incremental increases given to their budget so that by the time 2020 rolls around, its double present levels. Neither of those things are going to happen, however, unless people start screaming at their elected representatives. And I mean screaming. NASA is the red-headed step-child of the US government, and people think that money spent their is a waste because they're too stupid to realize the impact that it has on their lives. If we want a decent space program, if we want the US to still matter in the coming decades, then we have simply no choice but put the national focus on the space program and keep it there, like our very lives depend upon it, because they surely do.