White House Showcases National Plans For Mars Journey, High Technology

President Barack Obama is hosting the White House Frontiers Conference at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.

The idea is to “explore the future of innovation,” with conference programming in “Personal, Local, National, Global and Interplanetary” frontiers. Notable is the case for a Mars expedition, about which the president wrote earlier this week at CNN:

"Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way. [And someday] instead of eagerly awaiting the return of our intrepid explorers, we’ll know that because of the choices we make now, they’ve gone to space not just to visit, but to stay."

Tesla’s Elon Musk, too, recently called for a “public private partnership” (although it’s not fundamentally clear why he wants to go to Mars at all, since he thinks we live in a simulation; Bank of America researchers back him up though, betting there’s a 50/50 chance we live in the Matrix).

Obama’s “Interplanetary” track envisions us on Mars in the 2030s. That’s a timeline two decades away, while the president himself has 98 days left in office. At least the leading Mars proponent, Robert Zubrin, insists a president must do the job within his two terms.

I admit I’ll be giddy and glued to the screen if we land on Mars. While they were before my time, I still can’t get enough of the Golden Age sci-fi anthologies by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg.

So I don’t wish to be a stick in the mud. And yet, policy is getting overly carried away with the “public/private” approach to massive-scale technology, in which big government and big science see taxpayers as the key to centrally governed “National Plans.”

If we stay on that path, we risk hyper-regulation of the technology frontier. Government picking winners and losers and adopting monopoly franchises and exclusivity arrangements will set us back. That happened before, at the dawn of the electricity and telecommunications industries, which started out competitive before regulation eliminated competition.

Unfortunately, far from fostering a “future of innovation,” Washington already can’t wait to turn new technology sectors into public utilities. In addition to imposing “net neutrality” utility regulation on the Internet, Washington has unleashed its Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and even the Federal Communications Commission upon drones and driverless cars. Unelected bureaucracies are already issuing premature rules, when instead Congress should either be preempting their action altogether or at least passing real law itself.

In this vein, the Frontier conference tracks seem to overly prioritize overarching governmental goals.

The “National Frontiers” track addresses “artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, and [how] robotics can help address complex national problems.” This coincides with a brand new White House National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan outlining, “a strategic plan for Federally-funded research and development in AI.” That’s worrisome enough, especially when, interestingly or alarmingly, government robotics are now best known in military use. This is where a “strategic plan” for AI should come from?

The “Global Frontiers” track highlighting “strides in climate change mitigation and achieving a clean energy revolution” ignores green energy boondoggles and the ordinary reality that, as green energy technology advances, so too does fossil energy technology, probably maintaining its lead. More BTUs. Even the “Personal Frontiers” track with its BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) likewise represents government steering while the talent rows, something I discussed elsewhere.

So here’s a different, new maxim: How should America decide between competing technological initiatives? By not making them political choices.

We’ve done it long enough to know that governments are great at building big sexy infrastructure and projects, but not so great on the midlife maintenance when enthusiasm wanes, when inadequacies emerge (New York is set to ban flushable wet wipes since its aging sewers can’t handle them) and when priorities shift. I worked in the U.S. Senate during the Superconducting Supercollider years (for its funding, not against), and the appropriations environment is not how our descendants should do science.

Everyone should pursue passions, but not obligate others. Others have (unsubsidized) dreams that are just as legitimate and even more attainable. Some would like a private aircraft to go get groceries, rather than pay for others to fly to another planet that doesn’t even have air. We can remain in tune with the normal, sequential unfolding of pre-Mars technological markers such as sub-orbital global travel; arctic, antarctic and desert colonies; Moon colonies; and robotic asteroid mining. Baby steps are actually big steps.

We don’t even have the space elevator everybody used to talk about at conferences like the Frontier event (“key players have distanced themselves from the concept”).

A better White House Frontier initiative would be one emphasizing working with Congress to remove artificial regulatory barriers between network industries, rethinking antitrust interference with large-scale enterprise, and reducing red tape and capital market barriers, and of course corporate tax burdens.

Plus, “frontier capitalism” can better manage deadly risks that accompany new technologies; Washington tends to provide immunity and raise risk (nuclear and homeland security technologies’ indemnification from liability, for example). Free competitive enterprise is out of fashion at conferences like Obama’s, so I recognize I’m addressing our descendants who want to become shareholders in big capitalism.

But more on Mars, perhaps the showcase of the Frontiers show. As for the economics of it, Robert Tracinski over at RealClearFuture points out that every single thing imaginable is better produced here (or, perhaps, asteroids one day), not on Mars.

Subsidies and the contractor environment for Mars journeys will get the order of innovation out of whack, creating spurts of progress but leaving gaps. The Wright’s propeller and wind tunnel research had to happen before gliders could fly under power. Meanwhile subsidized Samuel Langley was catapulting the AeroDrome into the Potomac River.

There’s also the yearning entreaty of humans staying on Mars and not returning, as Obama and Musk dream. Some may do that.

But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, apart from a government-subsidized proof of concept and curiosity-sating trips to Mars or asteroids, in the long run, in real life, there aren’t going to be any big unaltered wetware organisms like us in gigantic metal or composite canisters flying through interplanetary and interstellar space.

True, Musk wishes to make humans a multi-planetary species. But no surface dwelling bi-ped like you or me is going to walk around on Venus’ 800 degrees, or “on” Jupiter’s irradiated dense gas soup surface. One Mars cheerleader reckoned on NPR that long-term colonists there would have to live in lava tubes thanks to radiation’s effects, and new research highlights cosmic radiation’s damage on the astronauts brain. There are even more moon craters being generated than we thought. Lots of stuff flying around out there.

People and conglomerates should certainly privately explore nearby planets and asteroids, but short of geo-engineering Mars first, I don’t see Musk’s interplanetary colonization as the future, let alone one reasonably, sustainably, subsidized by taxpayers.

After all, since Elon Musk and others say robots are going to take jobs here on Earth; wouldn’t that be even more true for trans-lunar space, where robots already rule.

Everything about what we are is optimized for this little spot right here on Planet Three, not outer space. But of course the capstone of the Frontiers “Interplanetary” track is “Not Just to Visit, But to Stay,” a line right out of Obama’s CNN oped.

The other reason Mars mania gets the “ airplane before the propeller” is that iPhone-style miniaturization comes before interstellar travel.

Another way to say it is that, since E=mc2 and accelerating small stuff is easier, apart from robotic excursions, our descendants may instead send out “recipes” for humans, or uploaded brains (can’t believe I said that) rather than our inadequate bodies themselves. (James Blish’s story “Surface Tension” is one of my favorites in this respect.) You likely have noticed your camera can see better than you; increasingly everything will work better than you. Human/machine merging/miniaturization to survive extreme conditions might be a prerequisite for the wildest dreams of today’s conferees. Yet, to a lesser degree, even this is a theme at the White House conference, with respect to important technologies for medical applications and to help the disabled.

Interestingly (going out on another limb here), a corollary here is that if we ever are visited by extraterrestrial aliens, they won’t be gigantic like the visitors in Independence Day, the Cloverfield movies, or the new movie Arrival‘s 12 giant, hovering craft. For interstellar/intergalactic travel, aliens (and we) probably need to be microscopic, or at least very tiny.

Yes, I know everybody wants to do it like Star Trek, but the sequence-of-technology problem and that Einstein stuff is a bear.

Incidentally I don’t think there are any UFOs (which is different from thinking we’re alone in the universe). But on the other hand, if there were, we may well not see them. If you’ve got miniaturization technology plus the capability for interplanetary travel, you can probably hide it from the likes of us. Some might go further and say, it’s not that they haven’t visited us, it’s that you wouldn’t know.

Modification involves religious lines that I don’t cross; however if other civilizations have made it into space by adopting directed rather than natural selection, I don’t think they’ll resemble their original selves, since once between worlds, that cosmos would be no friendlier to them than to us.

(Incidentally alien visitors don’t/won’t need our resources as every plot-line holds, because 3D printing and related molecular manipulation is something else that comes before interstellar travel. But I’ll keep reading sci-fi anyway.)

All that aside, the point is, the manner in which we project ourselves outward into the cosmos is something that competitive enterprise, not NASA “partnerships” and planning would best discover in the interplay between falsely dichotomized basic and applied research.

All, one hopes, in a vastly wealthier society. Which it is actually the function of the government to protect.

Alas, NASA is surely re-energized by the fact that we’ve discovered (with near certainty) that there’s an “Earth 2″ candidate orbiting in the Goldilocks Zone around Proxima Centauri, the closest star beyond our Sun. This “sister” planet is four light-years away and part of a triple-star system; the principle, Alpha Centauri is the second-brightest start in the sky from our vantage point, after Sirius.

After hundreds of extrasolar planet discoveries, to such an extent that we can now safely conclude all stars have planets around them, it’s nothing short of overwhelming to find a body capable of harboring liquid water next door.

They’re already talking about flying there with the robotic, small “Breakthrough Starshot. At least NASA could do that in a couple decades with a light-propelled, accelerating nanocraft technology (Google it).

But that doesn’t mean to put on your spacesuit and become multi-planetary with Elon Musk and Obama. First, this planet is bombarded with cosmic rays , probably obliterating any atmosphere. Second, our current speediest robotic craft would take over 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri.

It gets worse for those who wish to boldly go, with their Earthling trappings.

In the 1944 story “Far Centaurus” by A. E. van Vogt, fictional earth travelers arrive at the Alpha Centauri star system, only to find that during the thousands of years it was requiring to make the journey, another group that left many years after them beat them to it with a faster spacecraft.

Yikes. Whatever the “Frontier” technology is, it may or may not be in the hands of SpaceX or current contractors, within the grasp of the 2016 White House. At least if we hold our horses for a (more private-sector driven) 2030′s Mars journey, it will be able to take advantage of the not-yet-here and get the “wind tunnel research” done. That’s my only friendly “gripe” with do-it-now Zubrin, although his pace is the right approach once the trigger gets pulled.

Sure, I could wrong about some of these things. But if private people like me make mistakes, the rest of the country’s not on the hook for it. If government funding is steering the ship, figuratively and literally, it’s even more likely that we’ll be wrong about some of these things, yet everybody pays.

Having a vibrant space program likely requires rethinking the NASA model. While it’s still early in the game, we should strive to keep Big Government earthbound, whether the concern is Mars or other frontier sectors. Technologies need to advance in a sensible supply-and-demand-driven sequence rather than the fits and starts of porkbarrel science.

Government national plans, from “Local” to “Interplanetary”? “Too fail to big” was the formulation I liked best.

Originally posted to Forbes.com