We won't get 'mooned' again, or, why space still matters
I'll fess up now and admit I'm a space head.
I always have been and, much to my wife's chagrin, probably always will be. I've been heading into my backyard over the last few nights to catch a glimpse of the combined International Space Station/Space Shuttle Endeavour complex as it flies overhead at five miles a second. There isn't a whole lot to see, frankly. Just a white dot that moves through the sky for a couple of minutes before winking out unceremoniously somewhere near my neighbor's maple tree. The kids occasionally come along, if only to make sure I don't get lost in the thorny bushes in the corner of our yard.
All of which begs a number of questions: Why do I stare at a fast-moving dot in the sky while my puzzled neighbors look out their windows and wonder if I've lost it? Why does the thought of humans circling the planet in the world's most expensive vehicle jazz me so? What does any of this have to do with my regular existence as a technology analyst and journalist? Why is this relevant to you, my readers?
First off, I enjoy making people wonder about me. It's like sport without the risk of injury. Second, what they do up there inspires me to raise the level of my game down here. Third, space travel -- and leadership in this sector -- has everything to do with American technological leadership. By extension, that leadership sets the tone for innovation in the broader technology sector -- for regular folks like us. Lose sight of the big orbital picture and we may as well hand over our position as a world leader in tech to another country -- Russia, China, India, take your pick -- that wants it more than we do. Would an iPhone be just as sweet if a company halfway around the world built it before Apple did? Would a Chinese-owned search powerhouse be in our best interest? If we fail to stick to the space vision that made us a powerhouse a generation ago, we may yet find out.
And losing our vision is what we've been doing since the early 1970s, when President Nixon prematurely cancelled Apollo, gutted the follow-on shuttle program, and turned NASA from national hero to national has-been. The agency's been wandering through the woods ever since, and the longer it flails, the more likely it becomes that the next Microsoft, Google, or Apple won't be headquartered on US soil.
Although it may not be immediately obvious, there's a direct connection between our investments in space and our achievements as a leading technological nation. The space race in the 1960s not only challenged hundreds of thousands of space industry workers to push the limits of what was possible to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. It also inspired a generation of kids who would never so much as touch a rocket, let alone build one for NASA, to push their own limits in science and engineering. The space program was a halo for anyone who aspired to grow up and wear a pocket protector, who questioned the status quo and set out to make the impossible possible.
It's no wonder that the PC revolution, the commercialized Internet, broadband and wireless networking and countless other technological revolutions of our time hit critical mass in the wake of the US moon missions. That's because to a person, every Silicon Valley geek who slaved away in a garage building the Next Big Thing was probably a space geek at some point, too. Would the fires of innovation have been lit if they hadn't had a massive almost-40-storey rocket to inspire them? Doubtful.
As I write this, two of my fellow Canadians are among 13 astronauts -- the largest group ever -- on board the ISS. It's a veritable United Nations of spacefarers up there with American, Russian, Canadian, Japanese, and German representation. What they've learned in keeping a 330-ton multi-noded vehicle fully functional as it flies through space at 17,500 miles per hour is rewriting the book on how teams can successfully cross political, cultural and language barriers to accomplish common goals. The ISS is helping establish new benchmarks in project management as well as the obvious science and engineering -- all lessons that government-funded NASA is only too happy to share with the world at-large.
Yet as the shuttle program winds down to its 2010 retirement and the follow-on Constellation hardware remains mired in bureaucratic gridlock and budgetary starvation, the US will once again find itself unable to launch its own astronauts into space. As it currently stands, the gap will be five years. But increasingly, it looks like it could only widen, which makes original plans to return to the moon by 2020 look laughable indeed. Forty years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another orbital body, we live in a world where politicians dicker over budgets for NASA, debating for months over dollar figures that would barely cover a week's worth of military operations in Iraq. We cancel or scale back missions to other planets -- savings, perhaps, hundreds of millions of dollars -- while signing trillion dollar checks for golden parachute-protected financial sector leaders who wilfully ran their companies into the ground.
While this travesty of national priorities continues to play out and American's space interests starve, competing nations like China are pedal-to-the-metal on their own plans to accelerate their space programs. And as they inspire their own generations of tomorrow to pursue their technological dreams, American industry, lacking the celebrity of a globally leading space program, will continue to wrestle with falling numbers of science and engineering grads and an inability to fuel tomorrow's tech business growth.
Forty years ago, we won the moon. That we failed to capitalize on what could have been will reverberate through the technology industry for well over another 40 years. Whether we're even globally relevant by then depends on whether we're willing to finally get serious about turning past investments in space exploration into sustainable business opportunities for tomorrow.
Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.