Thursday, June 12, 2008

Red and Blue: More Space Between McCain and Obama

Recently, John McCain stated that he is "intrigued" by the idea of sending humans to Mars, saying that "it would excite the imagination of the American people" to know what it would be like to have humans stand on the surface of the Red Planet. Needless to say, I agree. Some argue that robotic missions can yield very significant scientific data at a fraction of the cost of sending missions which have to support the fragile human organism in the most inhospitable environments imaginable. This is not a groundless argument, but I have always felt that it rather missed some important parts of the point. The flexibility and mobility of human researchers, their ability to improvise and to stray from predetermined mission schedules to investigate "pop-up" objectives simply can't be matched by even the most versatile robotic probes, which bears on the "bang for your buck" part of the argument. But even this is not the central point.

It's funny how the argument for human space travel which seems the most "out there" is the one which addresses the most basic of human needs: raw survival. Initiating the process of spreading humanity beyond the confines of our atmosphere is a way of hedging humanity's bets for truly long-term survivability. It really is only a matter of time before the gods of orbital dynamics place us in the cross-hairs of another Extinction-Level Event like that which did for the dinosaurs. It could be a million years till the next Big One crosses our orbit at precisely the wrong time. It could be twenty minutes. I would rather we set about improving the odds that we'll have our space-legs well-developed when that particular hammer is cocked, either to have a much better chance of deflecting the bullet...or at least for there to be someone left to mourn and remember and begin again.

I am no fan of reality TV, but I am compelled in this context to reflect on its broad appeal. Starting with "The Real World" on MTV, millions of people have voted with their remotes on the value of participating in the lives of other people in unusual situations. We are a species of voyeurs, whose interests range from the prurient to the profound. We are constantly seeking to expand the range of our experiences, which I believe is a hard-wired trait of our tribal heritage, our need to belong to a community like our lives depend on it (gotta know what's going on in the yurt next door; might happen to me someday). As extraordinary as the data and images from our robotic probes in space and on the surface of Mars may be, the 'experiences' of these inanimate explorers is far too abstract to energize most people's imagination. We need the sense that someone's been there, and access to at least a vicarious experience of that being. The daily drama of humans en route to and on the surface of another world can scarcely be matched by any earthbound reality show (and smart mission financiers would charge a premium for the rights to broadcast that drama to dirtside viewers).

In addition to the drama, however, the inspiration which would flow from an undertaking of such magnitude would energize a generation which, for all its global interconnectivity, has grown all too inner-directed (planet-provincial, if you will), to the cost of our frontier-spawned culture. Giving this generation, and the ones to follow, a truly endless frontier (this time free from indigenous societies over which to steam-roll!) is one of the greatest gifts we could bestow. The Apollo program saw a burst in interest in science and engineering which continues to benefit us to this day. Think of how many young people would be motivated to expand the parameters of their perceived possibilities given the availability of such an adventure!

By contrast with this sort of vision, we have Obama's focus further down the Maslow pyramid. His thought appears to be that the 'diversion' of resources skyward would constitute a wasteful expenditure, and his equivocation on the matter of human spaceflight does not bode well for the fate of such programs under an Obama Administration:

In that new policy, Obama pledged to reduce the gap between the 2010 retirement of the shuttle and the first mission of Constellation, its successor program, now slated for 2015.

The new stance appeared to conflict with a previous Obama plan that would raid the Constellation budget to help pay for education reform set. That plan also called for delaying Constellation by five years.

But campaign sources said Obama would not delay the development Constellation, only later stages of the mission that would send astronauts to the moon and Mars.

However, it’s unclear what that policy would mean for NASA and Constellation, as the moon-Mars plan was the underlying reason President Bush pushed for the development of Constellation.

Plus, raiding the Constellation budget would not cover even a third of the $72 billion Obama needs for his education plan in a prospective first term.

Last year, NASA estimated it would spend about $23 billion on Constellation between 2009 and 2012; Obama has called for $18 billion annually for education reform.

Now, obviously I do not meant to imply here that exploring space is somehow "more important" than educating our young. What I take issue with is the proposition that the two are necessarily in conflict. That assumption is reflective of the strikingly narrow focus which has characterized the Obama campaign, despite all of its soaring rhetoric about Hope and Change. It's analogous to his penny-wise, pound-foolish notions about trying to raise revenues by doubling capital gains taxes, which will only disincentivize people from realizing their investments, and so ultimately take revenue out of the economy. In this case, he is essentially talking about diverting funds into the creation and maintenance of educational programs, and out of the kinds of societal-level projects which can help to provide the intrinsic motivations for young people to vector their educations toward the pursuit of broader dreams. This also bears on his approach to global trade and international relations (protectionist and non-interventionist), which will almost certainly drain the dynamism from trade and dangerously dilute the stabilizing effects of a robust American presence abroad.

In essence, then the difference between McCain's and Obama's approach can be described in terms of Red and Blue Planet models. Each is a state of mind which recurs throughout their respective theories of governance, one directed outward toward open-ended possibilities and their associated risks, while the other is a closed-loop, risk-averse vision.

Of course, in the fullness of time, these questions may in large measure be mooted by the increasingly robust private space projects which have been popping up in encouragingly large numbers of late. Private, for-profit ventures into orbit and thence to the moon, and even beyond would stand a far better chance of arising from and feeding back into a societal will for exploration than Kennedy-esque Programs, forever at the mercy of the vagaries of election cycles and the wrangling of various constituencies. However, here too the difference between the candidates is all-too relevant; it would be foolish to take Big Chances on the promise of profit from the development of space in a climate which stifles entrepreneurship as an Obama presidency doubtless would.

In the end, it comes down to which candidate demonstrates the greater faith in the ingenuity and vision of the American people for their future and the future of humanity. McCain is by no means my ideal candidate, but where it counts, he pretty much gets it, and his commitment to human space exploration is one of those areas which will win him my vote.

After all, it would be nice to have some hope...for a change.

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