I'm sure that most of the people who share my views regarding our country's financial condition and energy outlook won't concur with me, but when the death of our space program was announced, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss at what seems like the final capstone on forty years of national decline, during which this country has lost its lead in almost every branch of technology, and has become an impoverished debt addict and de facto colony of China.
The news that President Obama has canceled the funding for Constellation program was no doubt applauded by many people as a victory for common sense and fiscal restraint, and seems not to have registered at all among most of our citizens. In many quarters, the space program is regarded as a costly,wasteful, ecologically unjustifiable boondogle of little immediate utility and doubtful future benefit that consumes gargantuan quantities of fossil fuels and siphons massive amounts of tax revenue from projects of more immediate utility, such as our vast military apparatus and the ongoing efforts to re-inflate the housing and credit bubbles so that our top banksters can justify their multimillion dollar bonuses and the rest of us resume flipping houses and generating loan fees.
To many other people, notably the doomsayers of the Peak Oil community, it was only inevitable that this Promethean endeavor, with its massive energy and financial requirements, would be the first of our advanced technologies to be triaged on the descent from the absolute peak of our energy production, wealth, and technological advancement- a long, steep, wrenching path down hill that, many predict, will end with the death of any technology more advanced than wood-powered steam engines and water-driven mills. Damien Perrotin, of The View From Brittany, states in his post, Farewell to the Moon: "This pattern is likely to repeat itself as the decline in net energy available to our society makes keeping an advanced technology more and more difficult. There won't be any technological cliff, no abrupt return to the Middle-Age. Technologies will just lose momentum as the resources needed to advance them become scarcer and scarcer."
We will be reaching that point very soon, and there is considerable evidence that we might already have reached it. Yet what is more obvious is that the United States has passed its own peak of scientific achievement and advancement , and has lost its former lead in almost every field that matters, just as it has destroyed its manufacturing base and relinquished its economic lead to China and India in the process. More ominously, we have sat idly by as China moves aggressively to lock in its claims on a massive portion of the world's future oil production. At the same time, we have deliberately retarded development of nuclear power, an industry this nation pioneered and once led, and are stalled at the starting gate in the development of more advanced nuclear technologies, such as the molten salt and liquid fluoride thorium reactors, that could provide us with abundant clean energy for many generations going forward, while other nations, notably India, are not waiting for our blessings and are aggressively developing them.
Now, we are relinquishing to other major powers the chance, slender though it may be for anyone, of achieving a human landing on Mars, and developing the rich mineral resources that reside there and on Triton, a moon of Saturn thought to possess vast hydrocarbon reserves. These extraterrestrial mineral resources may well be the only way we will be able to fuel our technology in the coming century. The window of opportunity for developing the technology necessary to send humans to Mars and there build a small settlement from which to conduct extraction operations is narrow, being the brief interval between the present time, and the hour in which we reach the point on the downslope of fossil fuel production at which liquid fuels become so expensive and scarce that any effort that doesn't pertain directly to production of bare life necessities will be off the table. That window is closing very quickly. Moreover, as the grieving Charles Krauthammer points out in Closing the New Frontier, the Ares booster and Orion capsule are essential basic steppingstones along the arduous path that leads to a successful landing of humans on the red planet, and without those stepping stones, our hopes of ever attaining this are crushed. How will we ever make it to Mars and succeed in building a mining settlement if we can't even get to the moon, or into low orbit?
An alert reader might note a certain logical inconsistency in my position here, given my frequently-stated opposition to large-scale, multi-decade government programs that rely on the taxing authority we've granted the federal government, and whose effects cascade and amplify down through generations and produce unforseen consequences that we never bargained for, and that divert money away from private development and enterprise, which tends to be more sustainable and appropriate, to massively overscaled projects that not only cannot justify themselves economically, but destroy the fine-grained economic networks that support large-scaled private enterprises. The space exploration program would seem to be that, and on steroids- a vast undertaking that oftentimes seems more about national vanity and the daydreams of science fiction writers than about anything that we need to continue as an advanced nation, and that to many is absolutely unjustifiable in a period in which we are increasingly challenged in staying housed, fed, and warm. Obama himself, in announcing the decision to eliminate $3 billion for the Constellation project from the 2011 budget, framed it as a victory for free enterprise, stating that the private sector is welcome to pick up where NASA is leaving off.
That would be all well if even we still had a significant private sector. Would it be that our most successful and adventurous entrepreneurs, people like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, could organize a concern that might be capable of running even a rudimentary space program.But we no longer have a strong, confident, independent private sector that is capable of raising the gigantic amounts of capital required for such an undertaking. Most of all, though, we no longer have the business and political climate in which it is feasible to make plans that take up to a half-century or more to develop and implement, and in which investors feel secure enough to venture massive sums of money in highly speculative enterprises with massive capital requirements and multi-decade paybacks.
What we do have is a tower of unrepayable debt created by the financialization of our economy, and the most uncertain business climate in two hundred years. The uncertainty created by capricious changes in regulation and taxation, and the mounting costs of servicing government debt, have elevated the risk involved in long-term enterprises requiring massive capital outlays to levels unacceptable to most investors, and the result is that capital has fled heavy industry in this country, and gone into enterprises with a short payback period and immediate results-hence the decline of manufacturing and the flood of money into casino-type financial instruments where the payback is more rapid and the risk is perceived as being more manageable. The result of this process, of course, is the complete destruction of our heavy industry and the perversion of our financial markets, which were created to facilitate industry and commerce, into casinos that have enriched only a relative handful of players who belong to the financial cartel, while impoverishing the country and destroying our ability to finance the productive enterprises that could rebuild our economy.
As a result, the only entity with the wherewithal to support really large and speculative enterprises is the federal government, with its unlimited taxing authority. This would not have been the case a century ago, when people like Vanderbilt and Carnegie built the giant industries that made America not only the richest country in the world, but the most advanced and the one in which the incredible benefits spread to the greatest number of people, elevating our common citizenry from dirt-floor rural poverty to the most comfortable mass living conditions in the world, and offering them opportunities for advancement in a variety of fields that did not exist just 30 years before, just as it created the richest and most successful entrepreneurial class ever to exist at that time.
The result is if any major speculative venture is going to happen, it will be the government or nobody to finance it, and the process of determining just what will receive how much money, or any at all, will be driven not be consideration of the costs and benefits, or long-term needs, but by a purely political considerations, most of all by lobbyists and pressure groups. And as it happens, the most influential pressure group is the financial cartel, who as a group are not much concerned for the ongoing well-being and access to the decencies of life for the 98% of the population that doesn't get paid $40 million dollar bonuses for destroying our financial system. The Wall Street bonus babies won't be the ones suffering as our technology withers and our population spirals down into the poverty, filth, and degradation that was the lot of the majority prior to the industrial revolution, and is still the rule for most of the world's population, but will find a way to profit from our destruction, if only because they'll be able to recruit armies of poorly-paid household servants for a pittance.
Most of all, though, it will mean the end of our aspirations as a people. The greatest gift of the great thinkers and doers of past centuries was what they aspired to, and their passionate belief in the ability of humans to fulfill those dreams. A person might fall considerably short of his goals, but he surely won't exceed them, not even by accident. As Theodore Sturgeon once remarked, if you aim for 100, you might get that or you might get 50, but if you aim for 0, that is exactly what you will get. Now is the time to ask ourselves just what we aspire to- to greater knowledge and whatever advancement is possible to us, or to the life that was lived in the days of hand plows, childbirth on the kitchen table, and streets slimed with horse-droppings. There's no question of which manner of life is more easily attianable, and the human-haters are applauding every step backwards to it we take. Which will we choose?