50 years on

50 years ago, the US committed to landing a man on the moon by 1970. And did it. Part science, part nationalism/saber-rattling, it was a serious commitment and has yet to be matched (maybe because it wasn’t made of cheese?).

Now, what challenges do we take on? Space has proven to be expensive in money and lives, as the reusable Space Shuttle has claimed more lives that the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, at a huge cost per mission. Space exploration as national mandate no longer animates people as we face challenges and opportunities closer to home. Food, water, clean air, and climate issues now drive the debate, as well as the desire of many to enjoy the same standard of living the West enjoys.

The challenge there is two-fold. One, to assess and re-frame that way of life, in terms of energy costs for food, transportation, and the increasingly power-hungry entertainment/information network we have surrounded ourselves with, and two, to develop the technologies, products, and services that will allow everyone to live a better life without destroying the fragile ecosystem we rely on.

We need to invest in and develop:

  • high-efficiency testbed vehicles in high-demand environments. Examples: police cars, postal delivery vehicles, cabs, all of which travel a lot of miles and need to be both reliable and low-maintenance. I see no reason why passenger cars make optimal police cars: design a new 21st century police car or two — one for urban use, another for highway patrol use — and let those high-end specs drive innovation that will make for better commercial vehicles
  • powerplant replacement that will allow people to keep driving vehicles they are used to with new efficient powerplants. Given the economies of scale in modern automaking, with multiple marques sharing components, this should be doable.
  • build and deploy offshore wind and solar power stations that can become part of a larger worldwide power grid without land use issues or sightline problems. A girdle of these power islands on the equator could generate more power than we would ever need and would have the added benefit of incorporating the Southern Hemisphere as part of the system
  • continue investing is sail-power for transoceanic shipping. The world is going to get larger as transportation costs and times change to match the new reality
  • develop and deploy a hybrid lighter than air transportation system. Since the bulk of the fuel in commercial air transport is expended getting to cruising altitude, this seems like a good place to look into a new generation of airships — faster and safer than the hydrogen ships of 80 years ago but much more efficient than the jets of today.

Food and water, both quality and availability, need attention as well. Given the amount of energy that goes into transporting food to serve distant markets with out of season foods, we may need to re-evaluate how much a winter strawberry is worth. And the idea of shipping plastic containers of water across the country or across the world is unsustainable. A global standard for quality and access for water as well as minimal food security ought to be a priority. If we could feed astronauts in zero gravity 40 years ago, we should be able to feed anyone anywhere at any time.

April 12, 2010

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