India dreaming

In his speech at Rice in 1962, President Kennedy said: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon[…], not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. It set off a dream of space exploration that spurred on American science and technology innovation for almost 50 years.

This week, India sent off its first mission to Mars. This was also the first Mars mission from a developing country. Like the efforts of the US, in the middle of its Cold War with the Soviet Union, this is one of the starting shots in a space and technology war between India and China. But despite the political justifications, it is likely to have hugely beneficial effects for the country.

Many commentators, in and outside of India said that this is money that could be better spent on the many Indian poor. Even if India’s space program operates on a budget that would fund one day of NASA’s, it can course sometimes be hard to see how you can justify space exploration trips, lasting many years and with uncertain payoffs, when you have people starving in the country’s here and now.

But it is likely to be money well-spent. In the West, all the “dreaming” budgets, of space exploration, and of large-scale science fiction-style projects are largely being slashed and being put on the back burner. Stian Westlake argued in the FT recently that we need Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, and large, dream-like projects like it to spur on our collective imagination. With a few exceptions, such as the Hyperloop, a few space Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects, the US has stopped dreaming, which is having huge ramifications on the level of science and technology being developed. I wrote earlier here about how Google is one of the few institutions that have the imperative (and resources) to push for moonshot projects.

Judith Shulevitz, in the New Republic, argued recently that the classic American liberal arts has driven many of the scientific advances. For example, the tablet computer was envisioned in Star Trek, and cyberspace was first suggested by C W. That is another one of the “dreaming” budgets being cut, as money is spent on educating engineers who will make only incremental innovations rather than revolutionary ones. She argues that the current decline of liberal arts education means that we will face decades of less innovation.

There is clearly a case to be made for these kind of dreaming projects. I am happy to see India take the step to dream, despite all of its day-to-day issues. Like Indian economist Amartya Sen said, development is freedom. And space exploration is a huge driver for development, by letting a generation of Indians dream.

Image from NASA Earth Observatory

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