Op-ed | Space enterprise can fix the economy

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This article originally appeared in the June 5, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

President Trump is laser focused on creating jobs and fixing the economy.  However, in a time of anemic economic growth, the scourge of wealth inequality, and the present day preoccupation with technological innovation that cannot address either, this administration’s attempt to keep its promises may prove difficult.  Fortunately, if given the proper support and direction, the commercial space industry could easily drive a powerful, new age of economic expansion — and it can do so right now.

Coordinating the various efforts of space enterprise into developing a profitable, self-sustaining and permanent cislunar infrastructure between the Earth and the moon would re-energize our economy. A transportation network that connects our planet to commercial, scientific and manufacturing platforms in low Earth orbit, and the same kind of bases on the moon, would create dozens of new markets and thousands of new jobs. If Trump commits to doing this, and stays president for the next eight years, the technology exists (or is being developed) to build much of this infrastructure during that time.

The man who first envisioned all this was Gerard K. O’Neil in his groundbreaking work, “The High Frontier.” However, O’Neil’s dream was firmly grounded in the reality of economics, and his sage was Robert Heilbroner. He quoted often from Heilbroner’s famous work, “An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect.” By combining the physics of space technology with the logic of economics, O’Neil came up with a new and revolutionary way to approach space development, and as a result, was able to demonstrate that space enterprise could create the kind of economic power and growth that would change our entire industrial paradigm.

His ideas were so convincing that President Ronald Reagan created the National Commission on Space to study them. The commission produced a report called “Pioneering the Space Frontier” which was a high-level, technologically feasible and financially achievable road map for space development. Unfortunately, the commission’s report was ignored, along with the many others followed.

However, there is recent, compelling and undeniable economic research that offers both the rationale and imperative for reviving these ideas, and building this infrastructure right now.

The two main impediments to creating more jobs and a stronger economy are the limited focus of today’s technology, and wealth inequality. Several influential economists have weighed in on this. One of them, Robert Gordon, in his book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” clearly explains why economic growth stopped in our nation, and why much of our present technology focus cannot duplicate it. His point is that the nature of today’s innovation, and the areas it is concentrated in (communications and entertainment, for example), cannot grow our economy as past innovation did.  “The Great Inventions,” as he calls them, drove growth in America from 1870 to 1970 because those innovations were in energy, transportation and manufacturing, and they reverberated throughout the entire society over that century.

Gordon also believes that this was a one-time phenomenon, and doing it again might not be possible. However, space enterprise, engaged in the construction of a cislunar infrastructure, can duplicate the impact these “great inventions” had on our society — and in exactly the same areas. Revolutions in transportation (commercial space travel), energy (solar power satellites) and manufacturing (in-space manufacturing, 3D printing, lunar resource utilization, etc.) could all drive economic growth and job creation on a scale not seen for a long time.

The other major inhibitor to renewed economic growth is wealth inequality, and several economists, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, have convincingly proven why. In his book, “The Price of Inequality,” Stiglitz explains how this economic disease stifles adequate investment in education, technology and infrastructure by transferring billions of dollars from the lower and middle classes to the top. Not only does the lack of investment prevent leveling the playing field for millions of Americans, this transfer of wealth also distorts the natural competitiveness of markets and encourages the exploitive tendencies that exist in them to exorbitantly reward the few, while locking out the many.

A bold, national undertaking such as a manned Mars mission might be just the shot in the arm the U.S. economy needs.
A bold, national undertaking such as a manned Mars mission might be just the shot in the arm the U.S. economy needs.

To resolve this, Stiglitz recommends making our society fairer by changing current macroeconomic policies. First, we need to invest far more in education so that we can increase access to colleges, graduate schools and technical/vocational training for the many young people that cannot afford them today. Second, we need to invest in substantial infrastructure spending (extra-terrestrial as well as terrestrial) to drive the kind of job creation that will be needed — once we expand access to education — to gainfully employ a very large, well-trained and educated millennial workforce.

Constructing a cislunar infrastructure will accomplish both of these goals. It will drive renewed investment in education and training because such a complex project requires well educated and technical workers, and it will re-direct more investment dollars back into transportation, energy and manufacturing, which are the kinds of technology innovation that can actually drive economic growth. In addition, we have already seen the positive impact a robust space program had on science education, technology development and product spin-offs in our society many years ago.

Today, we are on the verge of an incredible paradigm shift ­— just look at the last decade of commercial space success. Still, to actually get there, we need to make a cislunar infrastructure a reality. And to do that, we need help from  government in channeling the space industry’s diverse efforts towards this common goal.

Not everyone is moved by the vision of humankind among the stars. Many voices who consider themselves more “realistic” or even “pragmatic” mistakenly believe that the space community is proposing science fiction at best, and wasteful foolishness at worst. Obviously, it is neither (and I do not count President Trump among these voices). However, the problems affecting the global economy, including slow growth and wealth inequality, are driving social maladies (widespread poverty, ignorance, despotism and terrorism) that now dangerously threaten world peace and stability.

The simple truth is space enterprise can provide important, and perhaps, permanent answers to many of these issues — including strengthening the U.S. military (another of President Trump’s goals). And, there are already several road maps for how to do this. More importantly however, the sorry states of our economy and our society have provided us with some very urgent reasons why we now need to do this.

If Donald Trump really is all about creating jobs, fixing the economy and making America great again, then he needs to understand that, with a little more investment and vision, here is a golden opportunity to do all three. And, in doing so, he would assure his legacy as one of the greatest president’s in U.S.