There has been much discussion in the media about whether we are seeing “green shoots” in the economy. Good economic news, upticks in certain indices and various other bit of positive information have given many of the pundits the question as to whether we are seeing a spring after such a long winter of negative news. Not really.
Talking heads need stuff to talk about so this theme has received a lot of airtime. It is not a correct metaphor. The good news is that both the global and U.S. economic free fall has leveled off into a slow down. We are still clearly declining, but at a much slower rate. While the U.S. economy contracted at a 6% rate in 4th quarter 2008 and a similar number in the 1st quarter 2009, that rate will slow to 3% for the current quarter and even less of a decline for the remainder of the year. We will be in decline for the rest of the year. Most post war recessions have had contractions similar to what we will experience during the 2nd – 4th quarters of 2009. But the free fall is over.
2009 will be the first year since the end of WWII that global trade will have contracted. The EU is quickly following, and in some parts exceeding, the economic contraction experienced by the U.S. My current forecast is that the U.S. will move into a 1-2% expansion in 2010 but that the lingering issues of unemployment, tight credit and the aversion of the consumer to spend will make this year feel like we are still in recession. The EU may take longer to emerge from contraction.
The equity markets have rebounded from their early year lows. I do think that we have successfully tested the bottom of the market. That said, the equity markets will remain volatile this year with declines and rebounds. We are not on a long term upward trend just yet.
It is very good news for all of us that the steep drop in GNP is now just a slow decline. That IS the good news.
It is Sunday, May 17, 2009 and I am sitting in a coffee café in Lawrence Kansas (son’s college graduation today). I am experiencing a profound sense of history. I am watching the live NASA feed of Astronaut Mike Massimino working on the Hubble Space Telescope. I am watching his hands work on the Hubble through the video camera on his helmet. I am listening to the voice of Mission Control in Houston guiding him and advising him as he tries to loosen bolts. He is trying different tools and there is conversation about “OK plan A isn’t working, let’s move on to plan B”
Mission control just said that “just in from Goddard, a real time effort on the ground points to a 60 pound lateral pressure needed for bolt removal”. This is live television in its most amazing definition of the term!
Just the fact that I can sit in a coffee café in a town of 70,000 in the middle of the U.S. and watch a live feed from space on my laptop is historically significant. It speaks to the fact that we now live in a broadband environment. It makes me think of the reality of 30-40 years ago when I would have had to be in a living room, watching a broadcast network – in this situation CBS since Walter Cronkite was THE anchorman when it came to NASA explain to me what might be going on in space. There was no HD live feed with audio of mission control interacting with an astronaut free in space for a five hour duration repair operation.
Again, from mission control: “we don’t expect video from Mike Massimino for another 12 minutes. During this time Mike will be putting tape over the openings where the bolts have been removed to keep fasteners from floating away.” The ongoing audio is Mike asking” How much tape should I put on?” Mission control: “As much tape as possible, more tape is better”
So I am experiencing the current pinnacle of communications connectivity listening to Mission Control on Earth telling an astronaut repairing the Hubble Telescope – one of the greatest portals in history for the increase of human understanding of the universe – to use more duct tape. A perfect combination of the highest of high tech and the lowest of low tech. Amazing!
And again: “OK we now have the rail removed with a little extra muscle from Massimino at 3 hours and 15 minutes into his space walk.”
I am experiencing something that, if described to anyone in the 1960s, 1970s, or even the 1980s, would be regarded as science fiction. To stack up the realities I am now experiencing:
1. Using a two pound computer in a coffee shop.
2. Having a wireless signal allowing me to watch 24 frames a second video on the screen of the two pound laptop computer, in Kansas.
3. Watching live video from outer space coming from a helmet camera of an astronaut who is floating in space.
4. Watching the hands of the astronaut doing real time repair in space of a major scientific instrument.
5. That this instrument, the Hubble telescope has been in orbit for years sending back data that has greatly expanded our knowledge of the universe.
6. The astronaut whose hands I am watching and whose voice I am hearing is the same astronaut who sent me a tweet on Twitter the day before speaking of the wonders of his earlier space walk.
7. The fact of, the technology of, and the incredible usage of something like Twitter.
All of this was my experience on a sunny Sunday morning in a coffee café in Kansas in 2009.
The adjectives that come to mind are wonderful, magnificent, amazing, incredible and transcendent! This viewing and communications experience described above would have sounded like complete science fiction 30 years ago. Some of it would have been thought of as such as recently as 15 years ago. Even 10 years ago the idea of a two pound laptop with live wireless streaming of video from space available in a restaurant would have raised eyebrows. Five years ago the concept of Twitter – and its explosive growth in users and usage, including an astronaut live from space – would have been questioned. It is the beginning of the swarm mind that may lie ahead.
This all points to the incredible transformation of communications and technology we have experienced and shared in the past few decades. Perhaps more transformation that in any similar time in human history. It is this transformational reality that is propelling us into the Shift Age, the global stage of human evolution.
There is a link to a column from my blog about this magnificent mission under the heading “Recent Columns”
Note: It is now one week later, Sunday, May 24, and I have just watched the Atlantis land in California after a mission that lasted12 days, 21 hours, 38 minutes and 19 seconds. 197 orbits, 5 space walks lasting a total of 37 hours. It was the 30th mission of the Atlantis and the 126th of the space shuttle program. This mission, with the drama and success of the Hubble repair project, the interactivity 24 hours a day via NASA TV – and Astro_Mike twittering – brought back to me the awe and excitement of the early days of space exploration.
Here is the one hour video summary from NASA of the entire mission: here.
It is a time in history to again recommit to the human exploration of space. As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century it is a perfect time to launch a new chapter in humanity’s reaching out beyond our planet earth.
Space exploration began in and to a great degree represented the Industrial Age. Landing men on the moon and returning them safely to earth in July 1969 marked not just the end of that decade but the beginning of the end of the Industrial Age. It was the apotheosis of the triumph of Industrial Age technology. The transition to the Information Age occurred during the 1970s as we were clearly in the Information Age in the 1980s. By the 1980s and 1990s the dramatic increase in computing power and the explosive growth of communications technologies not only greatly expanded space missions but also seemed to make them less incredible and more an extension of our lives. In addition, with the end of the Cold War the competitive aspect of the “space race” was gone, which lessened public support.
We are now entering the Shift Age, the global stage of human evolution and it is now time to look ahead to the next few decades and launch a new, global stage of space exploration. Not just global in the sense of a global cooperation of nations, but global in the sense that now, perhaps more than at any time in history, there are global imperatives that must be dealt with. Energy, natural resources, overpopulation, the survival of humanity and the growing probability – thanks to Hubble – of discovering both other life forms and other inhabitable planets are the factors influencing this global stage of space exploration.
I have had the opportunity to meet some of the greatest energy and space scientists in the world. Feng Hsu is one of them. Dr. Hsu is a Sr. Fellow, Aerospace Technology Working Group at NASA. He recently wrote a paper with Dr. Ken Cox entitled “Sustainable Space Exploration and Space Development: A Unified Strategic Vision”. A link to the full paper is at the end of this column, in addition to a link to the press release announcing the formation of the Space Renaissance Initiative. I would highly recommend that those of you with particular interest in space exploration read or at least scan both of these documents. Hsu’s and Cox’s paper is thorough and makes a compelling argument for what the U.S. should do this century in space.
The need for a completely new vision of space exploration in the Shift Age is essential. As Dr. Hsu’s paper points out, since the Apollo project, the U.S. has lacked a unified vision of space addressing strategic goals that include national and international needs and objectives in space exploration and space development. NASA, which is still the preeminent space agency in the world, was born and bred in the Cold War. It was set up as a national agency, serving the national interests in space in a competitive environment. What Dr. Hsu and others are now suggesting is that while NASA continues its’ aggressive plan of space exploration, there should be a new agency or Department of Space that has an additional focus on the commercial and industrial development in space.
This new agency would work with all interested international governments and partners to develop a vision of space exploration and development that combines private and public sector financing. I completely agree with this vision. Humanity now clearly faces global issues that, to some degree, can be addressed by looking to space for answers. Energy is just one of these issues.
The need to find alternative sources of energy from fossil fuels can be solved by developing Space Solar Power, alternatively called Space Based Solar Power. This is the big answer of humanity’s energy crisis. SSP/SBSP can, by the end of this century, supply the vast majority of energy for mankind. I speak about this every week to audiences and I find little or no awareness of it. Basically the idea is to have a number of large – mile in diameter – solar panel satellites in orbit around the world. With a internationally coordinated effort there could be 25 or more of these satellites in orbit by the end of this century. These satellites would beam down the sun’s energy to the earth’s surface and could be the source of most of our energy needs. As Dr. Hsu once said in a speech I heard “ We have 75 years of petroleum left and 5.5 billion years of sunlight. Look to the Sun”. Dr Hsu will be a guest columnist discussing this topic in the coming inaugural issue of the Shift Age Trend Report that will be published in early summer.
A new 21st century vision of space exploration and development is vitally important for humanity. We now move into this century’s vision of space that will not only help to solve mankind’s problems, but will continue to expand our knowledge of the Universe.
Link to Dr. Hsu’s and Dr. Cox’s paper: here
Link to the press release of the Space Renaissance Initiative: here