One of the most important projects for the long-range survival of the human race (and its descendants) involves creating a viable civilization that could survive the destruction of the whole Earth.
That is to say, we need to get off this rock.
I envision a day when humans are collecting energy from the sun in space using space-based solar power stations, mining asteroids for their raw materials, smelting those materials in space, then shipping that material to earth.
I compare the harvesting of materials in the dead wasteland of space - where the only life that exists is the life we bring with us - to cutting deeper and deeper scars into the living earth where we are already having significant and detrimental effects on the whole planet.
That future is a long ways off. For the present, the question is whether we are going to make any significant steps towards that future in 2010.
It seems quite clear that President Obama is one who believes that we should be solving all of the problems here on Earth first before we waste money sending people into space. On this model, there would be no manned spaceflight until there is no hunger on earth, every child gets a decent education, every person has easy access to quality medical care, there are no wars and no crime of any kind. Once that has been accomplished, THEN we can look to space exploration.
One could, of course, make the same claim about there being no sitcoms on television, no sporting events, no playing golf or basketball, no computer games, no cuddling in front of the fire with a loved one sipping hot chocolate, no walks on the beach, no working on a jigsaw puzzle. None of these things should exist until all of the problems of Earth have been solved.
Politically, Obama is not able to end the space program. It would require shutting down too many offices and companies and disrupt too many lives - generating too many of the wrong kind of headlines. The politically viable course is to have the smallest manned spaceflight program that is politically viable, and to spend the money elsewhere.
I suggest that this is a mistake for a number reasons. I have already alluded to two of them.
The first is that the day will come when there are no humans living on Earth. When that day arrives, either we will be a space-faring civilization or we will be extinct.
The second is that space represents the solution to some of these problems. In space we have access to huge quantities of energy guaranteed not to run out for the next several billion years, and whole asteroids to mine and to turn into manufactured goods without disturbing a single living thing.
There are other reasons to consider.
Third, there are significant threats to human well-being and even human survival that come from space. These include the potential impact of space rocks to the potential sterilization of the planet form a nearby gamma ray burst. The latter is exemplified by the discovery of a binary system that will destroy itself some day and seems well positioned to send a massive gamma ray burst in the direction of Earth. (See Binary 'deathstar' has Earth in its sights.)
Fourth, the space program continues to draw people into the study of science, math, and engineering, even if they ultimately put their efforts someplace else (such as the study of moral philosophy). Of all of the museums in the Smithsonian, the Air and Space Museum is still the one that gets the most visitors. It would be foolish for those who recognize the value of having a public well versed in science and technology in general to eliminate the biggest attraction that the fields of science and technology has to offer.
Yet, President Obama is not going to read this blog and I have no way of altering the course of the U.S. manned space program in the short term. That space program will probably be to do as little as politically possible.
Yet, there are still things to look forward to in 2010.
First, Virgin Galactic has recently shown us SpaceShipTwo - which will take paying passengers to the edge of space. SpaceX will likely launch Falcon 9 which has the ability to take cargo and, later, astronauts into space. Robert Bigalow is still working on his inflatable space modules, and several companies are working on was to get people economically to and from those modules. This is a start of an industry that could take people into space without government participation.
Second, a recent report from a panel charged with investigating manned space flight has identified a new goal for space exploration - a 'flexible plan' that puts the development of space itself above landings on the Moon or on Mars. It proposes projects for long-term spaceflights to asteroids and engage in long-term projects constructing and maintaining facilities such as space telescopes in deep space - outside of low earth orbit.
These two events are at least heading in the right direction.
So, one of the things I look forward to in 2010 is further development in this particular direction. Further development in a non-government space program where private entities take people into space and begin the work constructing the infrastructure that will harvest space resources, while NASA provides the research and technical development that helps this industry to survive.