A note from a friend last night has me thinking a lot about humanity and Very Big Space Projects. My friend went to see The Martian at Seattle Science Center’s Imax theater (without me). After watching the cinema he bought the book and read it cover to cover. He wrote the following:
Got me thinking how it wasn’t Scifi, it was fantasy– in the sense that how in hell will NASA ever get consistent enough funding to put together a program like that? When administrations change every 4-8 years and reshuffle the priorities every time, there’s no way to put together this sort of 20-30 year project.
And he’s right, NASA is gifted such a paltry part of the national budget these days that even a 54 million kilometer, one-way trip to our nearest neighbor seems functionally way beyond our reach. But our conversation has been focused on the hairbrained idea of an international treaty of contributing members. Something like that would have several key advantages.
- It would likely be focused on a single mission or objective. Send mankind to Mars or seed exoplanets in the galaxy, far-reaching goals are just fine as long as focus can be maintained over generations.
- Participant involvement would likely result in participation advancement. One of NASA’s former functional justifications came from the notion that the science of sending people and robots beyond our atmosphere often resulted in usable technologies back here on Earth. The case can be made that our rocket and sibling technology development in the 1950’s and 60’s gave the US an technical advantage that lingers today. Participation in a VBSP would likely have very big technology payoffs that international participants would benefit from greatly.
- Insulation for political upheaval, even variability. Treaties, once ratified by the powers that be are an excellent way to weather political turmoil. For VBSPs to even be possible this sort of stability is a necessity. You can’t have a fundamentalist political party cherry picking or even picking apart the science that science that must occur to make an object possible.
I’m sure there are complications and unforeseen problems I’m not considering regarding international treaties and VBSPs, but as I contemplate these I think that the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks.
Right now, I’m planning on making the first act of Distance about this. Who contributes to the VBSP I have in mind and why? Who does not? Where are the physical challenges to a VBSP when there is broad international support for a project of this sort? That sort of thing. I think the very nature of the VBSP changes the stakes of the game.
Some of my speculation leads me to believe that, in the same way that the US finds excuses to *NOT* become signatory to climate treaties, our nation would object to meaningful contributions to a VBSP treaty. We may have lost the foresight necessary to consider the benefits of big projects like this and consequently we routinely try to undermine their occurrence. The interesting thing is that other nations routinely ignore our international temper tantrums on the topic and simply proceed.
But if this is the case, what are the limitations our nation imposes on its citizens, specifically the ones most able to contribute meaningfully to science necessary to make a VBSP possible? Is the science persecuted? If you’re an American scientist, working on some part of a hypothetical VBSP would you fear only the insidious specter of underfunding or might you fear jackbooted stormtroopers knocking down your door?
Comments are, as always open, please be respectful and keep in mind that I’m plotting this story to host a debate on this topic.