Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It Started So Innocently But Then...


What a rant! I don't know where this came from. Sorry team, we'll try to do better tomorrow.

I think I’ve talked about Neal Stephenson before, actually, I know I have, I just can’t remember when (or which posts), and I don’t really want to talk about him again today except for what it means for my larger topic. He did, however, write of the most brilliantly odd books I’ve ever read in Cryptonomicon, which is a genre defying novel about a code breaker in WWII and his grandson in the present day, both kinda sorta on the hunt for the same thing. Flat out awesome. Drop what you’re doing and go read it quick, before others find out and mock you.

Of course, at a solid 1000 pages long, I’m not sure you can read it real quick, but do what you can.

Anyway, I have plans to read all his books at some point, and have one still sitting on my shelf that I picked up in the great Borders’s fire sale of 2011, but I’ve also got around 50 other books on my shelf I got then as well, it might be a while before I get to it.

Now, what was my point? Oh yes, I heard an interview with him the other day and he mentioned offhandedly about how America has shied away from mega-engineering projects for quite some time.

Also, it's a Star Destroyer!
And boy, did lights start going off in my head.  It’s true, oh so true. My first thought was the James-Webb space telescope. To put it bluntly, it’s the most awesome thing in the history of mankind, and it’s up for debate right now on whether or not it will ever fly. This was designed to be the replacement to Hubble and would be another giant leap forward in our understanding of the cosmos. It’s entering its home stretch in the assembly process, it’s over budget, it’s behind schedule, and it’s almost done. I blame those who budgeted the thing, but only partially. The thing is cutting edge, and we’re pushing the limits of technology, and in some cases, were counting on technologies that didn’t exist when the plans were being drawn up for the thing. It’s an impressive piece of engineering. The reason it might not fly however, is not an engineering one, it's a political one. The funding might get pulled now, in the 11th hour.

The shuttle program… gone. There is a replacement program in the works, but some insiders are doubtful that it will come to fruition. I personally feel like the shuttle program was a mistake anyway, but that’s a different topic. I don’t think ending a program with nothing concrete in the works is a good idea.
It would have been that big!

Anyone remember the superconducting supercollider? The U.S. spent tons of money on this project back in the 80’s and was far enough along in construction in the early 90's that shutting the program down was nearly as expensive as just finishing the damn thing (not really, but it was very expensive). It would have dwarfed the large hadron collider that had so many folks believing the world would end when it opened for business last year.

Even stuff as small scale (relatively speaking) as skyscrapers, the replacement towers for the world trade center got me thinking of when the last truly grandiose skyscraper was built in the U.S. When I was a kid most of the tallest, most awe inspiring structures in the world were the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower in Chicago. I know a lot of the reasons that we don’t continue to build bigger buildings are political – like a beautiful San Francisco building proposal was nixed because it violated height restrictions within the city – and there are federal regulations that would prevent anything similar to the giant tower in Dubai from being duplicated anywhere in the U.S.
Well, now that I look at it, it does look a bit... gaudy

I think the whole thing is depressing. I want to see a base on the moon, a trip to mars, a Manhattan type project to build a space elevator, or a maglev from Florida to Australia. I want to see miles wide solar cells high in orbit beaming down energy to the earth, or a plan to wipe out smallpox... wait, they may have done that one.

I wonder if those big dreams were part of the WWII mindset that carried over into the cold war. It was a time when using atomic weapons as a propellant for space craft wasn’t just a crazy idea, it was tested and ready to implement. Then it all came to a halt.

I want it back. I want us to do something big, so challenging that it might not work. The funny thing is, the main reason given is that it costs too much, that these projects are too much a financial burden, it would be foolish to waste our money on them.

To those who say that, I say you’re wrong. We spend more money on air conditioning in Iraq then we spend on NASA in a year*. I’m not making a political statement (as any discussion about congressional money quickly becomes), I’m just saying we spend money, lots of it, on things that don’t matter that much in the big picture.

The reason for me is two fold, 1) corporations are only interested in their quarterly earnings. Long term projects are those that take 2 or 3 years. We won't see any decades long research coming out of a publicly traded company, there is no money in it.

2) Governments. That's the only way to get really large scale projects done. They actually hire publicly traded corporations to do the big projects, it's inefficient, costs are hugely inflated, and corruption abounds, but it gets done (years late and way over budget). Except politicians are under more and more scrutiny, and they think of long term as their next election cycle, which means a 20 year project to get my ass to mars won't happen there either. They're more likely to make a big deal out of spending money that could be used to feed orphaned tuna is being wasted sending squirrels into space. Space science gets cut, the orphan tuna still starves, but people think that they're being frugal.

The end result. I think we're screwed.  

*What is more profound to me, the total amount of dollars spent on NASA since it's inception in the late 50's totals around $500 billion. A lot, but we've spent about two and a half that amount on the U.S. war on terror.


Tonja said...

They cured smallpox? I think a big space project would be cool too. I like the idea of a quick transport between continents.

Grumpy Bulldog said...

Wow, we were totally on the same wavelength today. My post says something similar. I don't know when we stopped dreaming big or why. I'll blame Republicans, though.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't think it has to do with a political party. It has to do with our overall mindset. We don't think long term anymore. We're such a disposable society. Most people buy a new car long before the old one is even paid off. If something breaks, we just buy a new one. We don't look ten-twenty years into the future - most just see the next year.
Actually, a really big project would boost the economy - think of all the people it would employ.

Anonymous said...

Space elevator is such a cool idea! I hope to see that in my lifetime. Might come from the private sector sooner than we think. I', using the Rose Hotel in Dubai, the tallest hotel in the world at the time I wrote the draft. I'll have to Google to see if there is a taller hotel since.

Briane P said...

Rusty! Awesome! Incredible! I've quoted/linked to you here:


Because I wholeheartedly support this! You are ABSOLUTELY right about all of this and you should run for Congress. When you think about the fact that in the olden days, we managed to build the Transcontinental Railroad using basic tools, and people once were inclined to sail off the edge of the world just to explore, and an entire nation managed to create a space program in less than a decade, it's amazing how little national will we have now.

Part of it is that we now better understand how our actions affect the world -- environmental studies and such -- but a big part of it is what you identify: people don't want to spend the money and don't see tangible results.

But I think that big thinking is its own tangible result and leads to remarkable breakthroughs. We should always be doing the next thing. Keep it up!

Michael Offutt said...

I agree. We are screwed.

Laila Knight said...

WWII and present time, so I'm guessing the book involves some type of time travel or flashbacking. The telescope thingy is cool. Oh, you just reminded me that they cancelled the space program. I am still so bummed about that one. How am I ever supposed to see an alien in my lifetime at this rate? :) Happy writing.

Andrew said...

If you want to read a truly scary article about money and why none of this stuff happens anymore, go here:

I was actually sick to my stomach by the time I got to the end.
And let me just say that I grew up republican, and I wish I could still call myself one. Now, I just don't know what I am, because I'm not a democrat, either. Mutt's right, though, it is the fault of the republican's that nothing happens anymore and that we can't get out of the money hole our country's in.

Melissa Bradley said...

Here, here!! If the Know-Nothings that are in Congress now and who are running for president continue to have their way, we'll drive ourselves in an SUV straight to being the Third World. It amazes me how little they seem to be aware of just how far behind the US is. Oh, and in the meantime all our bridges, etc. will continue to come crashing down as well. Awesome rant. Love the segue from the book.