In the final section the President outlines eight “Grand Challenges” of the 21st Century.
The challenges are great. I have a personal interest in the success of the first challenge to battle cancer and also like the idea of solar cells as cheap as paint or the “highly accurate and real-time translation between the major languages of the world” (can you say Babel fish). Yet, as I read the Strategy for American Innovation I was struck with what missing from the strategy, NASA. Other government agencies including the National Institute of Health, Department of Energy, and DARPA are mentioned but NASA is not found anywhere in the strategy. Now I’m not going to try to comment on why NASA is not in the strategy but instead would like to propose an additional “Grand Challenge” that is worthy of American innovation and NASA expertise.
“Ensuring the sustainability of Life on Earth and in Space.” For me these two are closely linked and can enable tremendous American innovation for the “benefit of all humanity.” First of all space offers us a unique view of the Earth and allows us to understand how we are impacting the Earth’s environment. The unique perspective from space has been focused on understanding but maybe part of ensuring sustainability of life on Earth should consider how we might help the Earth’s ecosystem from space. I know this will sound farfetched but to help stretch your imagination, what if we used the vantage point of space to control the weather (hey, they did it in Back to the Future J). What if we could direct rain to drought stricken areas of the world or focus showers during the yearly fires that threaten the California coast? Or as a friend shared recently, what if we could use position in space to decrease the eye of a hurricane? We still have much to learn about the Earth from space, but maybe it is time to move from learning to proactive measures that are only possible from Space.
Secondly much is being written about the depletion of resources on the Earth, including fresh water and energy. This same challenge is found in ensuring sustainability of life in Space. There is no water authority in space where the astronauts can tap into for their “tang” (ok, bad pun). Plus there is not a power grid that they plug into for their electricity. In space we have to tap into the renewable energy from the sun and recycle the water in the International Space Station. A grand challenge on the sustainability of life as it relates to renewable resources (beyond cheap solar cells) will have far reaching impacts to sustained human presence in space and benefit nations across the world. For an interesting discussion on this grand challenge on the Earth side of the equation, I would recommend Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded”.
Finally sustainability of life on Earth and Space requires advances in the delivery of medicine to remote locations. In space there is not an emergency room or a 24 hour clinic that you can drive to on the weekend (I don’t know about your family but it seems that when our kids were young, they would always get sick on the weekends when the doctor’s office was closed). We need to be able to ensure access to medical treatment as we get further and further away from the Earth. While back on Earth there are millions who need access to medical treatment since to them the nearest hospital may seem to them like it is in Low Earth Orbit.
Anyone up for a new “Grand Challenge”?
Sharing the Vision,
Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office