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Stop Building Bombs and Start Building Starships

In Archive, News, Science & Technology on April 19, 2014 at 11:11 AM

By Steven Ross Pomeroy Scientific American

In 1969, a great shadow was cast over the United States. That shadow, however, was not one of gloom. Instead of evoking the absence of light, this shadow caused us to look up in wonder at the brightness that created it. When the Saturn V Rocket propelling Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins dashed across the blue, cloud-splotched sky, we did not see a dark present. We glimpsed a bright future.

Elsewhere, however, truly ominous shadows were cast by rockets which never saw the sun. Nestled in silos and buried beneath barren landscapes, “Minuteman” missiles meant not to uplift man, but to deliver the end of man, shrouded much of our world in trepidation.

These two rockets, with two very distinct purposes, bring into focus a problem that has long plagued our nation. We spend far too much money on war, and not enough on science.

Considering that we are nearing the ominously titled “fiscal cliff” — a series of government spending cuts and tax increases that will automatically take effect if Congress and the President do not act to stop it — we have a unique opportunity to review Federal spending and ensure that we are investing our time and wealth to their most productive ends.

I argue that such a review – if guided by reason – would reveal that defense spending should be reduced in order to make way for a world-changing commitment to science and technology, a bold move that will put both the United States and the world on a path to a bright future.

As it stands today, the United States is clearly over militarized. Defense spending in 2011 was estimated at $711 Billion. That’s equal to the combined budgets of the next fourteen top-spending countries, over half of whom are strong U.S. allies. Moreover, a 2011 Government Accountability Office audit of defense spending found that a combined $70 billion was wasted in 2010 and 2009.

This over-the-top spending is indicative of a military-industrial-complex run amok, precisely the scenario that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps the most revered military commander of the 20th century, warned against in his farewell address. “Together, we must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose,” he avowed.

I can think of no better way to fulfill Eisenhower’s vision than through the pursuit of science.

By intelligently, purposefully, and gradually drawing down the defense budget from 4.7% to 3.0% of GDP (from $709 to $453 billion), and diverting some of those funds to meaningful science projects of both national and global significance, the United States can accomplish the essential goal of protecting its citizens, while simultaneously making the world a safer, healthier place and reinvigorating our economy.

We can begin the funding transition at home by re-committing ourselves to NASA. If we double the space agency’s budget (currently at $17.8 billion), our space accomplishments in ten years will dwarf even the monumental success of this summer, when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

We can complete the James Webb Space Telescope, allowing us to peer farther into the Universe than ever before. We can go to Mars by the end of the decade, a mission which astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson insists “would reboot America’s capacity to innovate as no other force in society can.” And with the recent news that warp drive may be more feasible than originally thought, we can focus on researching and eventually engineering interstellar starships that could one day take humans to Gliese 581 g — a potentially habitable Earth-like planet — in a mere two years. Along the way we could solve a myriad of other problems, writes Space.com’s Clara Moskowitz:

“…if human beings can solve the challenges of interstellar spaceflight, in the process they will have solved many of the problems plaguing Earth today, experts said. For example, building a starship will require figuring out how to conserve and recycle resources, how to structure societies for the common well-being, and how to harness and use energy sustainably.”

In addition to funding NASA, we can make fusion energy research a top national priority. Fusion power – an unparalleled energy source that generates electricity by effectively creating a miniature star – has eluded scientists for decades, but researchers now believe that successful fusion is within mankind’s grasp. Before the year is out, scientists at the National Ignition Facility in California hope to fire the world’s most powerful laser into a small test chamber with pea-sized fuel pellets of deuterium and tritium inside. The two isotopes of hydrogen will fuse together and potentially create up to one hundred times more energy than was used to ignite the fuel.

This breakthrough could serve as our “Sputnik Moment” for energy production. If we can put a man on the Moon a mere eight years after deciding to do so, then surely we can master “star power” if we pledge ourselves to the task. Fusion produces no carbon emissions, could provide power for thousands of years, is estimated to be cost-competitive with coal, and is unquestionably the energy source of the future. Yet despite the impressive resumé, fusion energy research is only allotted a relatively paltry $474.6 million. Why wait for the future to happen later? With additional spending freedom by making cuts in defense, we can fund fusion and make that future happen now.

Abroad, armed with science, the United States could make an even bigger difference. Instead of paying $1 billion for a new B-2 bomber or $2 billion for a Virgina Class Submarine – tools designed to forcefully combat the symptoms of the world’s problems — we could pay less and actually work to solve those problems. We live in a new age where people can collaborate as never before, working cooperatively across previously insurmountable barriers of distance and language. In this modern age, we don’t need an army of soldiers; we need an army of scientists.

The United States should spearhead a global public-private coalition with the aim of using science and technology to solve the pressing problems of the present and the surfacing challenges of the future. Partner countries will join and lend funding as well. Such a program could recruit scientists from around the world and form them into separate divisions, each tasked with an individual goal, such as curing disease, solving the emerging water crisis, or spreading modern agriculture practices.

Effective communication and outreach on an unprecedented scale will be paramount to the project’s success. This must involve on-the-ground collaboration with local governments, scientists, and stakeholders, especially in the Global South and the Third World. Solving global problems will need to be reconciled with local priorities.

Such an initiative would be a boon, both foreign and domestic. It would create jobs, spur innovation, foster global goodwill, and boost the world economy. It may also result in revolutionary discoveries that would eliminate many of the primary causes of conflict and war. In a world fortified by scientific discovery, there would simply be no need for exorbitant defense spending.

After reading this proposal, it’s natural to be somewhat incredulous. The undertaking that I have outlined is bold and would require the type of political consensus that we haven’t seen in well over a decade. But it is not wistful, nor is it too costly or overly naive. It can be done.

Setting our defense spending at 3.0% of GDP is far from unprecedented; it’s the same level we had during President Clinton’s second term. And the notion of aiding the developing world through a massive, coordinated scientific endeavor was also previously conceived. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy entertained a proposal to undertake a large-scale irrigation project to benefit the Third World. Instead, he chose an equally worthwhile enterprise: going to the Moon.

That courageous expedition – conducted in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Vietnam — proved that Science can be mightier than the Sword. In the decades that followed, we have forgotten this. It is time to remember it.

Images: Submarine and Starship

Steven Ross Pomeroy About the Author: Steven Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor for Real Clear Science, a science news aggregator. He regularly contributes to RCS’ Newton Blog. As a writer, Steven believes that his greatest assets are his insatiable curiosity and his ceaseless love for learning. Follow on Twitter @SteRoPo.

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  1. Hello,

    In the early 1960s, I worked on the space program. My job was to repair components of the space ships that seemed to be defective.

    At that time, all of the employees of the space program were Caucasians. And the program went well.

    Later, Africans were added to the mix, and things went from wonderful to shabby.

    Now, we have to buy tickets on the Russian space ships to get our “astronauts” into space.

    Our space program cannot be revived.

    Thank you,
    Bill Moore

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