The Space Case

With the news that NASA has once again grounded the shuttle fleet (a bit late for Discovery, but they say it LOOKS safe), many people are again questioning our need for the space shuttle — or, indeed, our space program entirely.

So, just why do we need to go back to the moon, as President Bush says we should? Or to Mars? Why do we need to have any more of a space program than we need to keep satellites orbiting the earth?

I have several reasons why I support the continuation and expansion of the space program (and I’m almost positive they don’t all boil down to “geek with a 12” stack of books that are purely Star Trek REFERENCE books looking to justify his geekiness).

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1) Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the early Russian rocket scientist, said it best: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one can not live in a cradle forever!” The human population is increasing faster and faster, and showing no signs of slowing. Eventually, we will most likely reach a point where we start running out of room for all the people on Earth, and we will need to start looking elsewhere.

The alternative at that point will be to simply reduce the overpopulation problem by reducing the number of people, and I’m not overly fond of that option.

2) “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” At least once or twice a year, there’s a news story about some tremendous asteroid that either will just miss or did just miss Earth. We already have a rudimentary system to watch for stray rocks the size of mountains (or bigger) heading our way to send us the way of the dinosaurs, but it’s self-evident by those news accounts that it’s woefully inadequate.

And even if we do find out about such a threat, what will we do? We have absolutely no ability to prevent it from happening.

3) Robert Heinlein, the legendary science fiction writer, was called to testify before a joint hearing of the House Select Committee on Aging and the House Committee on Science and Technology. (Full testimony available in this book, which I own but can’t lay my hands on at the moment.) After Googling around a bit, I can’t find the whole statement on line, but I did find this quote:

Here is a way to spot space-research spinoffs: If it involves microminiaturization of any sort, minicomputers, miniaturized long-life power sources, highly reliable microswitches, remotely-controlled manipulators, image enhancers, small and sophisticated robotics or cybernetics, then, no matter where you find the item, at a critical point in its development it was part of our space program.

…The most ironical thing about our space program is that there are thousands of people alive today who would be dead were it not for some item derived from space research–but are blissfully unaware of the fact–and complain about ‘wasting all the money on stupid, useless space stunts when we have so many really important problems to solve right here on Earth.’

‘–all that money–‘!

That sort of thinking would have kept Columbus at home.

The space program is a spin-off geyser. Nearly every aspect of our daily lives today is touched by some benefit of the space program. Heinlein spoke at length of just the benefits in medical technology he had experienced, and it was amazing.

4) For the purely philosophical and poetic among you, I give you this quote from Robert Browning: “Man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” We must have lofty goals and aspirations, something to drive us onward and push us to constantly improve. At attainable ideal is no ideal at all, and the equivalent of a death sentence to the soul. Legend has it that Alexander the Great, upon seeing his vast empire, wept because it meant he had no more worlds to conquer.

5) While I believe in UFOs in the strictest sense (that flying objects have been seen and not identified) and I believe that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (it’s just too damned big to believe that we are the only place where intelligence has developed), I don’t believe that we have been visited by aliens. The universe is, as I said, just too damned big, and our little neck of the celestial woods is the equivalent of East Bum to the nth degree.

Nonetheless, they are out there, and I’m sure that they’re exploring to their little heart’s content (presuming they have hearts, and one per customer). Someday, they’ll find us. We’ve been announcing our presence through radio and television signals for nearly a century now, and every year those signals move another light-year away from Earth. It would bode much better for us if we could meet them as equals, as fellow explorers, than simply sit back and wait for them to find us.

(Update: Damn, I can’t believe I forgot this one)
6) The whole conceit of “shooting money into space” is a complete and utter canard. From listening to some critics, one would think that NASA bundles hundred-dollar bills into giant bales and sends them off to Alpha Centauri. Every single cent of money spent on the space program is spent right here, and almost exclusively within the United States. NASA trades cash for equipment — very precise, very specific, very high-tech equipment. The companies that provide those to NASA in turn give that money to other companies, but eventually they give large chunks of it to individuals — their employees. And they pay taxes on the money NASA pays them.

The space program is GOOD for the economy. It puts money into the hands of high-tech companies, spurring them into further development and improvements in general technology. It’s an exaggeration to say that your iPod is directly traceable to the Apollo program, but not much of one.

Going to the Moon is important. It’s our nearest celestial neighbor. It has tremendous resources that we can use. Microgravity in Earth orbit is good for some things, but we’re finding more and more evidence that Man cannot live indefinitely weightless. But we might be able to adapt to living in the Moon’s reduced gravity, so a permanent Lunar colony seems feasible at this point.

It could also be a valuable way-station on our way to space. It has the raw materials to make fuel for spacecraft, and the lower gravity makes getting the fuel up to spacecraft considerably cheaper than from Earth.

Mars is important. So far, it’s considerably more habitable than the Moon (but that’s not saying much), and it appears to have one of the most valuable substances in the universe — water. Let’s not forget that water is a simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen — fuel for energy, and fuel for life.

I fully expect to live my entire life on Planet Earth, and I expect the same for the next generation, and the next. But someday I hope — I dream — I pray — that our descendants will look at Earth as “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

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10 Comments

  1. Bill K July 29, 2005
  2. Jay July 29, 2005
  3. pmm July 29, 2005
  4. Jay July 29, 2005
  5. superhawk July 29, 2005
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  7. ed July 29, 2005
  8. Asteroid Bill July 30, 2005
  9. Dodo David July 30, 2005
  10. fabulous williams January 17, 2006