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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).

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."

Comments (10)

Very good post.Fro... (Below threshold)
Bill K:

Very good post.

From the West Wing:

Sam Seaborn: There are lots of hungry people in the world, Mall, and none of them are hungry because we went to the moon. None of them are colder and certainly none of them are dumber because we went to the moon.

Mallory O'Brian: And we went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?

Sam Seaborn: Yes.

Mallory O'Brian: Why?

Sam Seaborn: Because it's next. Because we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is on a timeline of explorations and this is What's next.

"The human population is in... (Below threshold)

"The human population is increasing faster and faster, and showing no signs of slowing."

Actually, no, and yes. IIRC the entire population is going to max out at a relatively modest number by about 2050, then start to decline. Europe and the United States (if you don't count immigration that keeps the localized population growing) are merely leading the way.

Which is not to say it's not a good point and that to some of us it will always feel like this is too many people, however far we are from maxing out the planet's carrying capacity.

Mr. Tea, I'm sympathetic wi... (Below threshold)

Mr. Tea, I'm sympathetic with your argument, but I must contend your sixth point. While money spent on NASA is invested and distributed here on earth, the question should be whether it is the most efficient use of finite resources. Your logic is also employed by various mayors who argue for publicly-financed stadiums. They point to how the money goes to local firms and spurs economic growth, but they don't mention the opportunity cost--what that money could've been spent on.

I'm not arguing that money spent on the shuttle should be spent on school lunches or parking meters, but rather whether the money spent by NASA is the most efficient expenditure for reaching the goals you spell out in your post.

Which is not to say I don't... (Below threshold)

Which is not to say I don't agree with you, but the time is ripe for private outfits to do the heavy lifting, as it were, and for NASA to go back to its roots; encouraging industry, pursuing purer science that industry might be overlooking, making itself part of the market for space hardware so the initial question of "who's gonna buy it" is answered, speeding development and variety through X-Prize types of incentives. But not being in the system design and launch industry themselves.

Indeed, given a limited commercial incentive to go to Mars yet, but the fact that "it's next," it would be far more appropriate for NASA to "do" a mission to Mars (using privately designed stuff as much as possible) than for NASA to fumble around with a basic launch system and LEO access.

Best rationale I've seen an... (Below threshold)

Best rationale I've seen anywhere for space exploration in a while.

The GAO study that came out in 1986 estimated that for every one dollar spent on NASA, the federal government got a return of 3 dollars in tax revenue. They calculated the revenue from spin off ventures you mentioned.

Space money is what's called "Basic Research." No one knew that by hooking astronauts up to remote heart and respiration monitors that the same technology would eventually become commonplace in ICU wards across the country.

You just never know...

You don't have to convince ... (Below threshold)

You don't have to convince me that space exploration is a boon to the economy and our standard of living, but NASA is broken. They spent a couple of decades with out a clear, definable goal and now when POTUS gives them a directive, get us to Mars, they sit on their collective asses and think of ways to just get through the next shuttle launch. I'm not sure how best to fix the situation, but my guess is some combination of military and private development with a set of clear goals (get to the Moon, establish a base there, get to Mars, look into mining asteroids, etcetera) and huge prizes, such as the X Prize, for reaching those goals.

Hmmm.Sorry folks b... (Below threshold)


Sorry folks but space exploration and *exploitation* is a desired outcome. The Space Shuttle is a useless piece of crap that should have been scrapped years ago.

Each shuttle flight costs about $500 million dollars each. What a fricking waste of money.

Mostly what we have to reme... (Below threshold)
Asteroid Bill:

Mostly what we have to remember is that we need to be a space-faring species if we wish to survive. If we do not get control of our solar neighborhood, including the asteroids you referred to, we will be totally at the mercy of rare but extremely deadly high energy events that the solar system is capable of dishing out. Our species, after several hundred thousand years of Homo sapiens evolution, is just now at the point where we can save ourselves. We would feel pretty stupid if we missed our chance.

The best reason for space e... (Below threshold)

The best reason for space exploration was stated at the end of an episode of the TV series "Babylon 5" and then later demonstrated on the same series.

Eventually, the Earth will be destroyed when the Sun becomes a red giant. In order to survive, Mankind will have to move to another life-sustaining planet in another solar system.

By the way, I consider WD-40 to be the most useful of NASA's spin-offs.

hello i was just wondering ... (Below threshold)
fabulous williams:

hello i was just wondering why do they spend so much mney on all these explorations are they doing to make the united states of america look good is or is it for a cause.






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