Saturday, January 03, 2009

To Prognosticate is Human

Those who forget the past may be condemned to repeat it, but those who fail to imagine the future will be surprised ...

I had so much fun thinking about the future last year (2008) that it seems the perfect way to start the new year. This is much preferable to the kind of synopses of the old year that we are prone to do, and we won't have to consider how many notable and worthy human beings have passed from our midst in the short space of twelve months. Instead we can clear the decks and start over from a point where all things are possible. So, with all due warning that I may be wildly wrong about everything, here we go ...

  • President Obama's inauguration will be the most widely viewed of these events in history, thanks to endless replay on the Internet. It will be the most inspirational address since that of John Kennedy, the most healing since Lincoln's second, and the most motivational since FDR announced the New Deal. Obama will begin signing executive orders in the car on the way to the White House, suddenly putting everything to rights.
  • No, seriously -- the first year of the new administration will be a reality check for anyone who thought it was going to be easy. Nonetheless, progress will be made. Government printing presses will finally produce enough cash to make us solvent again, Guantanamo will become just another Navy base, and Hillary Clinton will be all over Europe and the Middle East actually doing something constructive about foreign policy. By year's end, the great rudder of the ship of state will have shifted a few degrees to port, and it will be possible to imagine the course changing accordingly.
  • Also by year's end financial experts will begin noting with some surprise that the stock markets have actually had a pretty good year. All those who waited too long to get out will suddenly realize they have waited too long to get back in.
  • A byproduct of the closing of the Guantanamo prison camp will be a case that makes it to the Supreme Court, which will declare certain provisions of the Patriot Act to be unconstitutional. This will be all the pretext the new Democratic Congress will need to scrap the bill and replace it with something that does not require the country to be a police state.
  • The new administrator appointed by Obama will oversee the most radical changes in NASA since its inception. Both the shuttle and its replacement will be scrapped, and the agency will begin hiring out all its launches, as it is repurposed toward R&D and science missions. This will be widely criticized, especially as the public sees much of its space money going to Europe, Russia, Japan, and even China. Congress will tack something onto a bill that requires a certain percentage of contracts to be awarded to American companies. But that's where the genius lies -- the lucrative contracts will ignite the private space flight industry, and create the biggest explosion of innovation since the 1930's gave us commercial air travel. The same forces that transformed the Internet after it was turned over to the public will now do the same for space travel. By the end of Obama's second term, multiple companies will be flying passengers into orbit, a new commercial space station will be planned along the lines of the one in 2001: Space Odyssey, and companies will announce their intentions to begin mining operations on the moon and asteroids. A new X-prize will be announced to reward the first humans to reach Mars, and Richard Branson will vow to be on the crew himself, posthumously one-upping his friend Steve Fosset.
  • Oil prices will drop below $10 a barrel as it becomes clear that demand is drying up all over the developed world. The major US oil companies will appeal to Congress for assistance as they attempt to transition to the new solar-wind-wave economy, but it will be too late for some of them who failed to diversify soon enough. The United Arab Emirates will have to go to the World Bank for a loan. Dubai will become the "world's richest slum" as the basis of its economy disappears.
  • The country will begin to be crisscrossed with a new power grid for distribution of energy and high speed electric rail lines connecting all major urban centers just as the Interstate Highway system did before them. This will be good for the national economy but murderous for the already struggling airlines. Even with cheap fuel, the only carriers that will survive will be the ones that can afford the loss of so many short domestic routes, and are able to cash in on the lucrative new business in orbital and suborbital flight.
I could go on, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. I'm sure there will be plenty more to predict next year. Got any ideas? Let me know.

[In case you have any doubts about the viability of private companies exploring space, consider that NASA has already awarded contracts to two firms, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, to haul freight to the space station after the shuttle program ends. And Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, in a joint venture with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, has already put a man into suborbital space, winning an X-Prize in the process. This is only the beginning folks, the mere Wright Brothers prelims.]

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