The View From Here

"Optimism, Captain! Optimism!"

Written by: developer

If there’s one important thing that a focused, optimistic and sustainable space exploration program can uniquely contribute to society right now, it is a sense of optimism that has long been missing in our media, our classrooms and the dimly-lit corridors of government.

At some level, I think most of us would like to break out of our cycle of negativity. We all want change for the better – in our schools, communities, nations and world. Virtually every self-help guru will admonish that, in order to manifest change in the world, the first thing we need to change is our minds – our viewpoints and outlooks that condition our world view. In the words of self-affirmation guru Mike Dooley: Thoughts Become Things: Choose the Good Ones!®

Along those lines I’d like to suggest that we all heed the sage advice of Dr. Phlox, the inter-species physician and ship’s doctor aboard the starship NX-01 Enterprise: “Optimism, Captain! Optimism!”

There are solutions to the many vexing challenges confronting us. A focused, optimistic and sustainable program of space exploration, development and utilization could help us realize many of them. Not all of them, of course, but many. Space is not a panacea, but I do believe it offers more potential bang for the buck than any other single field of endeavor.

Let’s take energy. There’s little doubt that one of the single largest issues vexing the planet is energy. Our addiction to fossil fuels contributes to widespread geopolitical conflict; it results in an alarming and unabated increase in atmospheric carbon levels, the destruction of our shielding ozone layer, environmental disasters resulting from undersea drilling and overseas transportation of oil and deforestation of the vital, oxygen-producing forests that renew our atmosphere.

Now, let’s consider some of the energy-related developments that have come from space:

  • Solar Electric Power. Photovoltaic cells and arrays were born in the space program because of a unique requirement — how do you generate and regenerate electrical power for satellites? Left to its own devices, the energy industry would almost certainly never have developed this technology — which can now be seen in use on residential rooftops and in commercial solar “farms” all over the world.
  • Wind Turbine Power. If we want to know where wind turbine technology came from, we’ve no further to look than NASA wind tunnels and the aerospace turbine industry. If we want to take this technology to the next level, we don’t fund the energy companies — we fund NASA and aerospace research.
  • Fuel Cell Technology. With their potential to provide limitless energy while producing only clean drinking water as a by-product, hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells would seem to be some kind of elusive “holy grail” for the energy industry. Yet, NASA first began using working hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells as early as Project Gemini, and successfully operated large-scale fuel cells during 135 Space Shuttle missions from 1981-2011. The problem with fuel cell technology development is that, oddly enough, it really is rocket science. An aggressive fuel cell development effort funded within the rubric of space exploration would boldly go where none of the current fuel cell hobby shops are capable of going.

Clearly, it has been our investment in space that has created the possibility of a clean, environmentally responsible and sustainable energy-independent future. A focused, optimistic and sustainable return to this type of investment in space can play a huge role in creating the solutions of the future:

  • Solar power from space. So far as we know, the Sun is our only inexhaustible source of energy (even nuclear power sources degrade over time). Researchers — most notably at non-U.S. space agencies such as JAXA — are closing in on the technology to transmit electrical energy wirelessly via microwave. Combining microwave technology with solar photovoltaic technology makes an environmentally benign system possible – one that uses Earth-orbiting satellites to beam solar electric energy to power smart grids on the surface. 
  • Power an extraterrestrial village, power the home planet. One of the chief challenges of creating human outposts on other bodies in our solar system is the challenge of providing energy. So, if your focused, optimistic and sustainable space exploration program includes plans to establish human outposts on the Moon and Mars, a sustainable and self-sufficient system of energy production becomes an essential, even unavoidable, by-product of the exploration program. A lunar system is likely to be photovoltaic, taking advantage of the lunar exposure to the Sun and of our knowledge of lunar soils, which contain, in abundance, everything needed to manufacture photovoltaic cells. Couple that lunar PV power farm with microwave energy transmission and it may even be possible to power the Earth from solar farms on the Moon! Mars is a bit trickier because of its distance from the Sun; however, if you can figure out a sustainable energy production system for a Mars base, you can then adopt that “Martian” technology to sustainably provide clean energy to communities anywhere on the home planet.

By the way, let’s not forget that a big part of energy efficiency technology in recent decades has been the advent of home, office and automotive insulating materials spun off from space technologies developed to solve in-space and trans-atmospheric thermal protection challenges. As we go deeper into space, where radiation hazards and other bogeymen await, insulation technologies will also be pressed toward new frontiers, with vast benefit on Earth.

So, a focused, optimistic and sustainable space exploration program will necessitate research and development, necessitate the development of actual products from the new space technologies and result in the creation of new jobs, in new industries, while solving some of our most vexing Earth-bound challenges. Those of us who have spent our careers in the space industry have no problem understanding this. We’ve seen it all before, and we know it will work again.

In addition to solving the energy crisis, saving the home planet, creating global economic prosperity and rejuvenating our national sense of purpose — what else might a focused, optimistic and sustainable space exploration program do for us?

Whew! Isn’t that enough?

I think the most important contribution of such a program might be the reversal of decades of negativism that have penetrated our culture and poisoned the fundamentally optimistic American soul from within. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone, from pre-schooler to president, could once again believe that things are getting better and the best is yet to come?

I don’t think that this is just sentimentality. Isn’t it time to replace the social angst and defeatist fatalism that gave us goth and grunge with something better? Do our kids really need to grow up surrounded by media, politicians, academics and role models who bombard them with the view that the world is doomed to a downward spiral from which we can never recover? While hope, in and of itself, is not a strategy, isn’t there strategic value in creating hope? And in creating the expectation — the imperative — that the world can, and will, get better?

Do we have the courage to give America belief in its ability to dare greatly again?

I think we must have that courage.

Space exploration is inherently courageous and fundamentally optimistic. It thrives on doing the things that people say cannot be done. It fuels our belief in ourselves and in our humanity. The way it works on our hearts and minds is at least as important as the way it works in creating knowledge, innovation and industry.

At the Space Foundation, our mission is “to advance space-related endeavors to Inspire, Enable and Propel humanity.”

The View from Here is that a focused, optimistic and sustainable space exploration program will do exactly that. I’ve used that descriptor throughout this column to differentiate the space program we DO have, from the space program America deserves. So, what would focused, optimistic and sustainable look like?

  • A national sense of the purpose of our space program that transcends administrations, elections and partisan politics. As a corollary, political support and discourse that focuses on our national purpose, rather than on pork barrels, partisanship and jobs programs.
  • A clear set of missions and objectives. Capabilities and technologies, for their own sake, are not enough. If you don’t know where you’re going and when you need to get there, then any road, any rocket, will do.
  • Leadership and management tools and structures that ensure continuity of purpose, continuity of programs and multi-year funding, adequate to the task on hand.
  • A belief in the importance of U.S. leadership in the world, and a commitment to pursuing it through the exploration, development and utilization of space.

This article is part of Space Watch: July 2012 (Volume: 11, Issue: 7).