Billions and Billions / by Brian Delano

You are one of roughly seven billion human shaped nodes crusted on the surface of a living rock, suspended in a vast ocean of stygian nothingness. Every flail of your flagella, whether it be to comfort a newborn node, embrace a lover node, or slam against a podium and rouse a nation of nodes to war against another nation of nodes, is ultimately pointless. The pebble you reside on will one day be consumed by the tiny spark of a sun it circles around, before the spark itself blinks out and our universe’s sovereign blackness reigns over this stellar neighborhood once again. What a glorious picture our current scientific understanding and ‘highly educated’ mindset paints of our reality… As far as a cultural myth goes, it doesn’t get much bleaker.

            Scale can be such a deceptive teaching mechanism. For instance, you know that there is so much more to this experience of being one of those tiny human nodes than just floating through space and living pointlessly. The fact that human beings have the capacity to contemplate the reason behind their existence is evidence enough that pushing forward, towards a grander future- one where our scientific reality incorporates the epic qualities of our historic mythos- is well worth any risk to our rock or our concept of self.

            We’ve already installed the cultural mechanisms to do such a thing. We’ve already moved forward towards this seemingly unattainable goal of a full species transformation into a godlike civilization of world builders. NASA has been making men and women into myths since its inception. We even named a few of the rockets that elevated these individuals to the status of legends after our favorite Greek deities.

            The body of human shaped nodes collectively known as The United States of America has put men on the moon. The United States gathered money from every taxable individual in its collective, turned that money into research, rocket fuel, training, etc., then grabbed a few rocks from the lunar surface and planted a flag before leaving. Every US citizen watching the moon landings had the honor of knowing a few of their tax dollars helped put men there. We had achieved a previously icarian goal through the pooling of our resources towards the realization of a long shot idea- accomplished at a fraction of the cost of our military spending during those years.

            We still have NASA. That measly pittance of our tax money that had accomplished so much in the past has shrunk even smaller in the face of our other expenditures over the years, but a little bit is still there. NASA researchers are still dreaming with all the imagination bred of that 60s moon race madness as well. Some ideas they currently have shelved, due to a lack of adequate funding, make the moon landing look like a boring stroll to our neighbor’s barren back yard. If the United States government, and the citizens that vote the members of government into office, could get their act together and recognize the potential of these shelved and stunted programs, maybe they would be willing to allot more tax money for NASA usage and save us all from a slow, withering death in the face of our current, less than optimistic, view of existence. Maybe we could even benefit along the way from a few ‘consumer transferrable’ discoveries and innovations that would come out of the process, as we’ve done in the past.

            What do home water filters, cordless vacuums, artificial limbs, memory foam mattress pads, and the computer microchip all have in common?  The concept for every one of these items was either birthed in the mind of, or expanded upon by, a NASA scientist or engineer ("26 NASA Inventions"). If you use any one of these items on a daily basis, then you should never object to ponying up a few tax dollars for NASA.

Did you see that last one on the list? Microchips… where would our lives be without them today? Without critical research into the miniaturization of components necessary for the Apollo mission guidance computers, humanity may have never developed the modern microchip. Pair this innovation with long distance telecommunications (another NASA development), and you have a government employee to thank for that smart phone in your pocket. That’s right, that electronic third lobe of most people’s brains which most modern commerce, communication, and self-education relies on has its family tree’s roots firmly planted in NASA soil ("26 NASA Inventions").

            While all of these innovations are impressive, and well worth the price tag to most people, maybe you are a person that needs something more noble, more earth preserving, presented as proof of the value returned by NASA funding. What could benefit our planet more than clean, easily extracted energy? NASA was hot on the trail of a technology that could provide this back in the early 90s when they formed the ERAST program ("26 NASA Inventions"). Their original stated goal of building a plane that could stay aloft for days at a time in very high altitude led to the development of some of the world’s first modern solar panels. Models very similar to ERAST’s original can be seen in rows on many modern commercial buildings and a growing number of home residences. By using energy harvested from the light produced by the sun; energy that would otherwise dissipate pointlessly against whatever it hit, the species as a whole takes a large step towards leaving a smaller footprint on our environment. The less we mess with spaceship Earth, the more stable our ecology will be. A stable ecology equates to our race not having to worry as much about super storms, rising seas, melting permafrost, rising levels of harmful chemicals in our air and water, and any number of other nightmare scenarios created by the chain of events known as ‘global climate change’.  It’s hard to deny that NASA has a knack for harvesting game changing technologies from odd looking plots of ‘what if?’.

            At first glance, and without the privilege of retrospection, projects like sending a man to the moon, or flying a plane powered by nothing but sunlight for days straight may seem a bit ‘kooky’, perhaps even a bit insane. One lacking knowledge as to what these lofty ambitions yielded of use (beyond their immediate awesomeness and “Go Team Human!” appeal) might be inclined to label them as frivolous at any price tag. It is of the utmost importance, however, to understand what a drop in the bucket the billions of dollars in tax money being funneled to NASA every year constitutes compared to some of our other, less fruitful expenditures.

NASA had a budget of $19 billion in 2010. While that amount of money may sound astronomical to the average wage worker, we must consider that the US military had a $20 billion air conditioning bill that same year (Praetorius). Given the comparison of each institution’s contribution to the betterment of humanity that year, how can anyone deny that this inequality is just not cool? I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.

NASA is working with a budget that is consistently dwarfed by military spending. In 2015, NASA worked with an $18 billion budget, while the taxpayers of the United States footed a $618 billion bill to the armed services (“2015 United States”). In other words, for every dollar you spent in taxes during 2015, 16 cents of that dollar went to military expenditures; NASA was given less than half of a cent (“Budget of NASA”).

There are plenty of folks among the U.S. citizenry that feel any additional expenditure is not worth the cost, that government is already too large to begin with (Boccia). There are groups that feel the United States has reached the pinnacle of its power and influence and the only logical course of action for our government is to stake the largest possible claim of the resources available on this planet, flex our military muscle whenever this claim is challenged, and continue plodding along as the ruling nation of the Earthlings. For the modern, military-minded citizen, threats come in the form of unknowns and any cut to what they see as an already shrinking budget puts the nation at risk. If our intelligence is off, if our assessment of the new “norm” in warfare- asymmetric conflicts- happens to yield false information and leads to a loss of even a single American life, they feel that a lack of prioritization of military spending is the culprit and the citizenry has been done an injustice (Keller). If you count yourself among those with this supremely cautious mindset, it is understandable that you may be hesitant to redistribute funding for the Department of Defense to an entity of ‘mad scientists’ such as NASA. Whether they have learned the historical significance of their own viewpoint or not, in the minds of ‘big military’ supporters, the U.S. is analogous to Rome at the beginning of its decline.

Space, for people with this mindset, is the greatest unknown threat- a wilderness without boundaries that may harbor existential challenges the likes of which no budget could even begin to defend against. Space, in their minds, is a realm best left to science fiction authors and pipe dreamers. For them, no good can come of any meddling with the mother of all asymmetric threat generators.

If the U.S.A. is to be viewed in such a hegemonic manner, a cure for this mindset of fear could easily be achieved with a look back at NASA’s shelved projects. If we are indeed an empire at their peak, consuming resources at a drastically disproportionate rate to the rest of the world’s nations, then what would be best for the nation? We’ve nearly run out of exploitable habitats. There is no modern analogue to the New World looming on the horizon… or is there? We’re about to pluralize our prospects. NASA and their colleagues are already gazing upon the New Worlds.

An exoplanet is a world circling a star other than our own. NASA and their associated researchers have confirmed over 1,700 of these worlds drifting right in our cosmic neighborhood, data which, if found to be homogeneous, means there are likely billions of planets in our galaxy alone (Dunbar). Millions of these planets may be Earth-like enough to sustain human life. Those are our worlds, if we are brave enough to pursue them. If we can put aside frugality and fear, we may one day be a multi-starred species.

New Worlds without a foreseeable end would mean a cessation of scarcity of any kind. The warring tribes and ideologies of the Earthlings would no longer be confined to this one bedroom/one bathroom rock out in the boonies of the Milky Way. Our species has outgrown its home planet and found itself in a position where franchising the human experience out amongst the stars may be our only path to salvation. The only hurdles keeping us from a Star Trek reality are distance and ‘speed’. Where is our moving van to the stars? What form will the sails of our cosmic vessel take? How will we ever go ‘faster’ than the speed of light?

In 1994, a man named Miguel Alcubierre developed a plan to break the misconception that matter must obey a cosmic speed limit (White). Until that point in time, any serious dream of mankind being a galactic traveler had been quashed by the astoundingly large amount of time and energy it would take anyone to get anywhere within the vastness of space. Light travels at just under 3 million meters per second. That’s damn fast. However, even at this speed, it takes light generated by our own star eight and a half minutes to reach the earth. If we were to somehow develop a ship that could go even a noticeable fraction of the speed of light, not only would it take amounts of energy the likes and types of which we have never produced to go this fast by conventional means, it would also take decades (or longer) to reach anywhere worthy of the trip. The Alcubierre Drive, an infamously (in the right circles) shelved NASA project, could likely make all of our species’ anxieties about the speed of light laughable by future generations of humans (White).

It is common knowledge among the scientifically curious that space and time can be viewed as two sides to the same coin. Space-time, as this conglomeration is ingeniously referred to, can be warped. Planets and stars imagined sitting ‘on the surface’ of space-time can also be imagined, to some degree of accuracy, to be forming ripples while they bob along in their path. Now, picture space-time as a runner rug atop a slick floor, the Alcubierre drive as an overeager puppy sitting on the rug, and any cosmic destination our species deems worthy of our attention as a carelessly discarded morsel of steak at the opposite end of the rug from the puppy. That puppy’s going to haul ass towards that piece of meat, but not really ‘go’ anywhere. How does the puppy go nowhere, yet still scarf that meat on the other end of the rug down like it held the key to immortality? In his motions, the puppy kicks the rug up underneath himself- creating a high density of rug behind him while the rug gathers, and a low density in front of him as the rug is pulled and stretched towards him. By creating a drive engine that densifies space-time behind it and thins out space-time in front of it, we will outfit vessels that will pull space-time around themselves, as opposed to our current method of pushing vessels through space-time. Using this form of travel will get us to other star systems within a few weeks or months, instead of the previously hypothesized decades, centuries, or eons (White). Given our current understanding of the physics of the universe, this method of ‘propulsion’ is theoretically viable. All we lack in the development process that would make the Alcubierre Drive a reality is the power source- large amounts of antimatter (White).

Antimatter is a term used for any form of matter consisting of antiparticles (Antimatter). These antiparticles are mirrored forms of the particles we know and love (and are made of). These bizarro-particles have been around since the big bang and act as a necessary yin to the yang of our relatively friendly table of elements. If a single atom is seen as a condensed, encapsulated, and slowed down quantity of energy (see Hiroshima/Nagasaki circa August 1945 for an understanding of the amount of energy contained in an atom), then an atom of antimatter is a negative expression of that same amount of energy. When a molecule of antimatter comes into contact with a molecule of ‘normal’ matter, the resulting reaction releases all of the stored energy in both particles(Antimatter).

So far, producing antimatter has proven to be incredibly difficult. Large particle colliders produce antiparticles all of the time when performing their experiments, but a method for containing these strange bits of energy before they whimper out of existence is still alluding our best scientists (Antimatter). Given a whiff of even a fraction of our current military budget, we may start to see some interesting (and promising) proposals for ways to make our own dark matter. If our species suddenly finds itself with a surplus of dark matter as a result of the effort to produce a viable Alcubierre drive, we’ll likely either blast ourselves out of existence or have a limitless source of energy. Dark matter derived energy could very well make NASA’s previous public gift of solar technology look antiquated, possibly even primitive, by comparison. Given the quickening pace of our consumption of natural resources and our ever more apparent lack of elbow room on Earth, this gamble seems worth the risk.

So how do we move forward? What light could shine through to the bottom of this philosophical pitfall we find our species trapped within during the modern age? How do we conquer the cosmos and spread our little human shaped nodes to every rock we reach? One of the great cosmic poet/philosopher/scientists of recent times, Carl Sagan, put our current predicament beautifully into perspective when he described mankind as being “at the shores of the cosmic ocean” (Sagan). He went on to gauge humanity as being “ankle deep” in that ocean, given our recent lunar excursions (Sagan). We are now at a point in time where potentially fruitful land has been sighted on the other side of the ocean.

The United States, seen as a tribe, has been given a choice. Do we keep funding the warriors, so they can maintain our tribe’s dominance over the other little tribes on this tiny, pale blue dot of a planet? Do we let the wealthy and powerful among us continue defining the boundaries of our dreams by allowing them to draft economic scenarios in which they are the only ones who stand to profit?  Or, just maybe, do we start listening to the ship builders; maybe throw them some extra funds and see what they dream up? How much are the stars worth? There are billions and billions of them, so let’s start with a few bucks each.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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