Conventional wisdom holds that the election of Barak Obama over John McCain two years ago has made no significant difference with respect to the trajectory of human civilization towards self-generated apocalyptic crisis. While this assessment may very well turn out to be correct, I believe that due to Obama's election a final opportunity for a transcendent human future has emerged. I do not believe that Obama himself has any real understanding of this; however, this opportunity is quite real.
If John McCain had been elected, he would, without any doubt whatsoever, have continued his predecessors' space policy: Politically driven development of costly, inefficient, unreliable space hardware. For Republicans, the space program is another form of corporate welfare. For Democrats, it is a massive jobs program. For neither has it ever been about actually pushing the technological envelope for developing efficient space technology as rapidly as possible. NASA has NEVER really been about space exploration with a view towards advancing the frontiers of human civilization.
It takes no more energy to launch a person into Earth orbit than it does to fly them from New York to Sydney Australia onboard a Boeing 747. Yet vast numbers of people are enduring TSA scans and gropes to fly across the planet while very few are flying upwards to Earth orbit. Why? The answer is simple: cost. It costs thousands of times more, per pound, to fly up than it does to fly horizontally across the planet. Why?
Here the answer is a bit more complicated. Air travel relies upon mature technologies which have approached the theoretical maxim limits of efficiency permitted by the laws of physics.
On the other hand, space travel is in its technological infancy. Existing launch systems are derived from the Nazi V-2 rocket that was designed not for efficiency, but for terror. The Saturn 5 rocket, which hurled the Apollo capsule to the moon, was built by Werner von Braun--chief designer of the V-2, the first ballistic missile. Mercury and Gemini astronauts rode their tiny capsules to orbit atop slightly modified ICBMs. These rockets were not developed with cost efficient space transportation goals in mind--they were developed to hurl thermonuclear warheads out of the sky upon the heads of the Soviets. The Soviet space program was itself the mirror image of ours, using big military rockets that were originally designed to rain terror down on us as well.
Even when a technological advance towards greater efficiency was attempted--such as was the case for the space shuttle program--it was a halfhearted effort due to the political constraints imposed on the program. The result, predictably, was an even more expensive piece of space transportation hardware, which was even less reliable than the ICBM derived rockets which it was intended to replace. This result was, from the perverse point of view of US space policy, good. Even more taxpayer dollars would be funneled to aerospace corporations and their subcontractors, while simultaneously, larger armies of public and private workers were required for each infrequent launch. Mission accomplished! Obviously, such a "space" program was not ever going to go anywhere. It was simply not designed to do so.
This is where Obama's election has been decisive. Obama scrapped the old paradigm for NASA. The costly and ineffective Constellation program to build an Apollo-like successor to the space shuttle fleet has been eliminated in Congress. Instead NASA is providing subsidies to entrepreneurial startup firms such as SpaceX to develop much cheaper, more efficient, and cost-effective vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Using SpaceX's Dragon space capsules and the already-flight-tested Falcon-9 rocket, these launches will begin in two to three years' time. The initial orbital test of the complete system, including re-entry and soft landing of the capsule is set for December 2010. An unmanned version of this system will begin bringing cargo to the ISS in 2011. NASA will guarantee a base market to SpaceX and later to its entrepreneurial competitors.
Already, SpaceX's launch costs for customers are down to only about 25 percent of those charged for equivalent services by the big aerospace corporations.
This however, is only the beginning. As most readers are only too well aware, vast amounts of wealth have been appropriated into too few hands. Inequality of wealth distribution is at levels not seen since the Middle Ages. Most of this wealth is being abused for fraudulent "financial masturbation" schemes, which appear to produce greater return on investment, rather than being utilized productively in the real-world economy where it is needed.
Enter the space industry.
Billionaire Robert Bigelow and his corporation, Bigelow Aerospace, plan to launch and assemble an orbiting space hotel in 2014 using SpaceX's Falcon 9 heavy lift rocket. Bigelow has financed the development of large inflatable, pressurized Kevlar modules which can be joined together to create a space station of any desired size quickly. A prototype for these modules has already been built and flight tested in Earth orbit. Beginning in 2015, Bigelow will begin receiving paying passengers. This is just over FOUR years from now!
This development will jump start an explosive development of space tourism for the ultra-rich. While some may consider this to be the ultimate display of unproductive waste of monies stolen from the mass of humanity by corporatist predators, I assert that the opposite is true: Creation of an economically lucrative mass space tourism industry will accelerate the rapid development of more efficient and reliable space transportation hardware (these super-rich folks understandably don't want to risk getting killed in their joyrides, after all).
Finally, the same virtuous circle of demand-driven technological improvement, that previously transformed heavier-than-air aircraft from dangerous, expensive toys, into a global industry, will come into play. Costs for traveling to orbit will drop dramatically. Reliability, efficiency, and safety will rise dramatically. All of this will occur in the next two decades.
In energy terms, once you are in Earth orbit, you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system. Realize that in space there exists a resource base greater than a thousand Earths could provide. Realize too that in space vast amounts of sunlight can be captured and beamed down to a power-hungry Earth via microwave beams. The one constraint which has made the use of these nearly limitless energy and material resource bases impossible has been the high cost of reaching space with the current expensive and unreliable technologies. Once this constraint is removed there shall be such an explosion of human civilization as exists only in the wildest dreams of wild-eyed cornucopians.
Consider that just as it is becoming possible to exploit these resources, energy and material resources on Earth will be peaking and going into terminal decline. At this same historical moment, human-caused environmental problems will be rapidly making life as usual on Earth impossible. The net effect will be to create a once-in-a-species-lifetime moment of profound existential crisis. At this very moment, the very corporatist forces which created the crisis will inadvertently generate its potential solution.
Planets are where civilizations must be born and nurtured. When they reach an industrial level of development, they must either transcend their planetary origins, or perish due to resource exhaustion and environmental catastrophe. If such a civilization perishes, it can never rise again due to the exhaustion of easily available sources of energy such as coal and oil.