The Policy Think Site: 7-20-05
WHY AMERICA MUST DOMINATE THE EMERGING SPACE ECONOMY
Why outsourcing and the hollowing out of American manufacturing cannot be reversed by simplistic protectionist policies or by “free trade” as it’s presently constituted:
“It’s The Infrastructure, Stupid”
In Defense of a Real Space Initiative
Jay B. Gaskill
AMERICANS HAVE WATCHED COMPLACENTLY FROM THE SIDELINES WHILE OUR ONCE VAUNTED MANUFACTURING CAPABILITY HAS TRAVELED TO THE THIRD WORLD.
Every underemployed American worker, every talented young man or woman who is sidelined from a productive future represents a resource lost in exactly the same way that the airline industry considers an empty seat in flight as an irrecoverable sale. The post-Sputnik core of engineers and scientists is retiring and most of them haven’t been replaced. The auto-era cadres of factory workers are underemployed and their former factory towns have become part of the “rust belt.” For the reasons I outline here, this situation is neither tenable nor sustainable.
We need a vigorous, reenergized space program for a number of reasons. But the first of them is self interest. This is the only remaining strategy that can achieve the protection of our economic future by exploiting the one remaining area in which this country still clearly excels. We need to build the space enterprise infrastructure, a system of commerce and economic wealth generation that will eventually exceed the value of our current manufacturing sector by the same ratio that the GNP of America exceeds that of the tiny Spanish empire that funded the first Columbus expedition.
And I say that we specifically need to do this, because the infrastructure will be built whether we are a part of the process or not. China’s “John Glen” orbiting astronaut is just the opening move in a decades-long, healthy competition that will determine the relevance of America to the future of our species.
At present we suffer from political paralysis. Too many conservative republicans are unwilling to embrace the massive federal spending this dramatic move would entail and too many liberal democrats would ever agree to spend on space at all in the misguided belief that the money would only benefit the “rich”. Free market libertarians are content to let the marketplace drive space exploration, which is to concede the game by default to China. The truth is found in European history:
Like those earlier explorations that reversed the decline of European civilization by opening up the New World venue, creation of a real space enterprise will require more government participation and funding than private during its first century. And like those earlier efforts, the exact nature of the ultimate payoff will be poorly understood at first. Recall that the Europeans explored the New World just to find spices. But the payoff is huge, both in national security terms and in the restoration of American economic capabilities.
Think, for a moment, about the larger trends affecting this country’s economic future:
In the last three decades much of our manufacturing capability has been “outsourced” to other countries where labor conditions and environmental regulations permit lower unit costs for every widget made with a US brand.
In the last ten years, the telecommuting trend has jumped the rails – a rapidly growing slice of our service industry, particularly those jobs that can be performed from a desktop and a telephone, have been outsourced to other countries. There a skilled, underemployed workforce is more than happy to work for a fraction of the pay earned by their American counterparts.
When we began to lose our core manufacturing capability, we were reassured that America would grow a robust service economy to replace it. As we now begin to lose much of our service economy as well, we risk becoming a contractor economy in which profits are skimmed from processes that take place largely outside our national borders. At some point our subcontractors around the world will revolt – just as the oil producing regimes in the Middle East did – and we will be left at the mercy of a price structure we can’t control and a sharply reduced income flow. Do we really want to become the world’s economic “has been”?
Dare we even risk that prospect?
In the long term, the achievement of continuing, affordable access to the near-earth zone (essentially the region from low earth orbit to lunar orbit) will generate more wealth for the world than the exploitation of the North American continent, and at far less ecological damage. All of the technologies essential to the forthcoming clean energy revolution are required for the development of the near space infrastructure. The speed and pace of their development will be greatly accelerated by a renewed robust space development program. Many manufacturing and power generating processes will eventually take place off-earth. Other developments in communication, transportation, materials science, biology, health science, geology, meteorology, and some amazing developments beyond even categorical prediction (think of the European quest for mere spices) will surely follow.
The two human habitats – near space and the irreplaceable pale blue home of our biosphere – will be deeply interdependent. Protection against space born hazards to the planet itself – like the mountain sized meteorite that may strike Paris, London, New Deli, or LA – will be a natural and affordable byproduct of the development of an economically self-sustaining near space infrastructure.
Developments in the human enterprise are never a zero sum game. The choice now as it has always been for our species: to dare, risk, and grow … or to decline and die.
Copyright © 2004 & 2005 by Jay B. Gaskill
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