As I write this, I am sitting in Washington D.C. The airwaves and the newspapers are filled with talk of sequestration, with the debate over frugality and investment. In all of this drab procedural inflection we lose the spirit of leading that should be emanating from this city. I’ve already documented that when the government invests time in thinking big thoughts, we become too deep, too abstract, too narrow to excite the American electorate. You can find this work at First Pass: What’s Wrong with the Grand Challenges for Engineering on the Kurzweil blog. More recently, I wrote that this narrowness of vision and passion for change, this inability to inspire, extends to the large technology companies who now have more discretionary funding than the U.S. Government, but they too seek narrow answers to often self-serving questions. You can find these thoughts documented in my Fast Company post WHY TECH’S BIGGEST PLAYERS FAVOR THE ILLUSION OF PROGRESS OVER REAL INNOVATION.
But hope is not lost. A small cadre of smart, passionate investors are looking to return to space in a serious way. SpaceX, The Inspiration Mars Project and Planetary Resources are fighting for escape velocity against the gravity well of partisan politics. A recent Keck Institute for Space Studies report suggested that we go get an asteroid. Not that cower under the threat of an asteroid falling from the sky to obliterate humanity, but that we rally behind the aspirational vision to go get a asteroid and bring it back to Earth in a controlled way. That is a big goal that people can understand. It is also a huge engineering effort, but these kind of simple, easy to understand goals drive engineering, science and general knowledge. They are certainty Serendipity Economy efforts because as much as the engineering firms involved may attempt to plan for a project like this, the uncertainties they face will create new challenges that will produce new, unanticipated knowledge.
Chris Lewicki,President & Chief Asteroid Miner at Planetary Resources was involved in the recommendation and doesn’t necessarily see retrieving the asteroid as an overwhelming endeavor. In a recent blog, Lewicki wrote:
Return of a near-Earth-asteroid of this size would require today’s largest launch vehicles, and today’s most efficient propulsion systems in order to achieve the mission. Even so, capturing and transporting a small asteroid should be a fairly straightforward affair. Mission cost and complexity are likely on par with missions like the Curiosity Mars rover. The greater challenge of such an endeavor may be selecting an asteroid to retrieve.
As a scenario planner, I have to be a bit more skeptical, because as much as we know about space, I know we will face unforeseen issues. And given my opening comments about politics, the issues faced may be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial.
Regardless, NASA has created a simple vision that it should be permitted to pursue, perhaps with strong commercial partners. We are on the verge of a melding between public and private funding when it comes to space. As much as commercial interests can invest, even inspire, though, we still need national and international leadership that stretches beyond the dreams or aspirations of any one firm. The future will likely be one where space, if we pursue it purposefully, will be joint-ventures combined with private investments. As we solve big challenges, and learn to industrialize the solutions, the space industry will push the boundaries of our imaginations, both scientific and economic.
Let’s go get that asteroid and bring it into orbit. It won’t cure cancer or bring peace to Earth, but it may well get us closer to both of those goals than spending all of our intellectual cycles trying to balance budgets and manage deficits. If we can go after one or two big goals, we won’t need to sell STEM or try to inspire students to learn, they will willingly join the ranks of people who want to be involved in big visions and the big tasks required to make them real. The Apollo program helped fuel the nascent computer industry and many others. Who knows how fighting to realize inspirational goals outside of the world will affect the way we see the challenges here on Earth. I am personally looking forward to pointing my refractor into the sky near sunset a few years from now to catch a glimpse of our new satellite. I hope that when I do that, the headlines coming out of D.C. will be focused on how to invest the windfall derived from realizing our dreams.