Only 120 Trillion Miles

Scientists say that a previously-unknown Earth-like planet is so close to us–only 120 trillion miles away–that they could possibly pick up our radio signals and vice versa. This discovery of a planet with all the characteristics of our own, and even roughly the same size, is a dramatic new insight into our universe. The European astronomers, using a telescope in the Chilean Andes, have named this planet Gliese 581 c. That’s not a very warm and fuzzy name for a place that has the right temperatures and is in the right zone from its sun to have liquid water and, possibly, some kind of life.

This discovery draws attention to the role that highly trained scientists play in our world. It’s not only astronomers but a wide range of skilled workers from nuclear engineers to biologists to computer and robotics operators who make up the world we live in. What nation is most likely to ever make it to Gliese 581 c? Americans are justly proud of the U.S. space program. But Europe has one and so do the Chinese. Maybe someday the Indians will be exploring the planets too. There’s no monopoly on this kind of exploration.

And there is no monopoly on the kind of high-tech, high-paying innovation economy that the United States enjoys today. If we want to keep that kind of standard of living, we need to be doing more to provide manufacturing and other industries with the skilled workers they need to perform at world-class standards. Today’s workers in the United States are highly-skilled but many of them will be retiring as the Baby Boom generations ages. Will we have the right mix to replace them? Unless we focus more on this aspect of the future, it may be other nations that take the lead in advanced manufacturing and innovation.

Closely related to this concern is a question about whether Congress will muster the will anytime soon to provide the United States with a sensible supply of energy going forward. Many industries rely on a stable and competitively priced energy supply not only for their heating and cooling in their plants, but also for the basic building blocks of their products. Fail to provide manufacturers with that essential ingredient and the wherewithal to build rockets and other space gear will pass to another country as well.

Congress would do well to focus on these two issues in this session and, in so doing, will ensure that the United States will stay in the lead and that Americans might be the first major explorers of this very interesting new planet. To read Britain’s Daily Mail article on Gliese 581 c and some very intersting graphics, click here.